Let’s make a deal

Denver school district, teachers union reach agreement on contract that includes $1,400 increase to base salary

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in March.

The Denver teachers union and Denver Public Schools reached an agreement early Friday morning on a new five-year contract. It comes after months of in-public negotiations that saw the union take a more aggressive stance, packing bargaining sessions with teachers and community members advocating for its bullish list of demands.

The deal, reached at the end of a marathon bargaining session as the existing contract ticked toward expiration, provides the union more than the district originally proposed on teacher pay and other issues, but falls short of the union’s most ambitious goals.

However, Denver Classroom Teachers Association executive director Pam Shamburg said the educators’ show of force sent a message to the district that “our teachers have voice.”

“At some point, they started bringing the signs that said, ‘You are bargaining with me,’” Shamburg said.

The new contract includes:

  • A $1,400 increase to teachers’ base salary for 2017-18, which is more than $800 higher than the school district originally offered. Before that raise, the base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree this year started at $41,389, though teachers could earn more through Denver’s pay-for-performance compensation system, known as ProComp. The union had asked for a $50,000 starting salary.
  •  An additional $1,500 per year for teachers who teach in Title I schools, or schools where a high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty.
  •  Beginning next year, an increased benefits subsidy of $1,200 per year for teachers who enroll in medical plans that include coverage for their children.
  • Also beginning next year, an additional day for planning lessons — and an agreement that the first and last 10 minutes of each school day will not be counted as planning time.
  • A new joint task force “to review current and best practices, policies and recommendations for future improvements around the whole child,” according to a district statement.The union had proposed lowering class sizes, guaranteeing all students 45 minutes of recess or physical activity each day, and providing students daily access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • A joint collaborative committee “to review and oversee ongoing improvements to the growth and performance system for teachers,” which is known as LEAP. Teachers have complained that the system is too subjective. Under ProComp, teachers’ evaluations impact their pay.

A joint statement from DPS and the union described the new teacher pay package as “generous.” In an interview Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg described it as the strongest package the district has offered in more than a decade. It strikes a good balance, he said, between increasing the salaries of all teachers and giving bigger raises to teachers in high-poverty schools, which can struggle to keep staff.

“The (financial) incentive in and of itself doesn’t change behavior,” Boasberg said. “But when coupled with really good school leaders, positive school culture and a strong set of supports — social and emotional supports for students — all of those together help attract and retain great teachers at our higher poverty schools.”

Shamburg said that while the contract is a good deal, “it is so far from enough.”

“It is ridiculous as a society what we’re asking our teachers to do for nothing, for a pittance of pay, for the hours they put in,” she said. Shamburg said the district and the union have agreed to lobby lawmakers for more state education funding, a perennial issue in Colorado.

The union’s initial demands also included a moratorium on charter school expansion and more transparency in school closure decisions, which was a contentious issue in DPS last year. From the beginning, union leaders said those demands were meant to start a conversation.

“Did we get them in the contract? No,” Shamburg said. “But did we make it clear where our teachers stand? … I think we made it clear.”

“When you go out aggressively, you don’t always get it on the first try,” she added. “But man, did we shake things up. And it is not over.”

Boasberg said that while in-public bargaining is more transparent and accessible, it also has its challenges.

“Public bargaining makes it much harder for both sides to be vulnerable and engaged in the give-and-take and exploration of solutions, as opposed to statement and restatement of positions,” he said.

“In the end,” he added, “both sides worked very, very hard to try and search for solutions.”

The previous teacher contract expired at midnight Thursday. The two sides hammered out the new deal Friday in front of an audience of more than 300 teachers and community members, a handful of whom stayed until it was signed at 4:30 a.m., Shamburg said. The new contract must be approved by union members and the Denver school board before it takes effect.

money matters

More money for poor students and cuts to central office: A first look at the Denver school district’s budget plan

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Lisa Ragan reads to her third-grade class at Marrama Elementary School in Denver.

Denver district officials are proposing to cut as many as 50 central office jobs next year while increasing the funding schools get to educate the poorest students, as part of their effort to send more of the district’s billion-dollar budget directly to schools.

Most of the staff reductions would occur in the centrally funded special education department, which stands to lose about 30 positions that help schools serve students with disabilities, as well as several supervisors, according to a presentation of highlights of a preliminary budget.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he met with some of the affected employees Thursday to let them know before the school hiring season starts next month. That would allow them, he said, to apply for similar positions at individual schools, though school principals ultimately have control over their budgets and who they hire.

The reductions are needed, officials said, because of rising costs, even as the district is expected to receive more state funding in 2018-19. State lawmakers are poised to consider several plans this year to shore up Colorado’s pension system, all of which would require Denver Public Schools to contribute millions more toward teacher retirement.

The district will also pay more in teacher salaries as a result of a new contract that includes raises for all teachers, and bonuses for those who teach in high-poverty schools.

In addition, the district is projected to lose students over the next several years as rising housing prices in the gentrifying city push out low-income families. Fewer students will mean less state funding, and fewer poor students will mean a reduction in federal money the district receives to help educate them. It is expected to get $600,000 less in so-called Title I funding next year.

The presentation given to the school board Thursday night included a breakdown of the proposed cuts and additions to the 2018-19 budget, which is estimated at $1.02 billion. Not all details or exact figures were available because the budget proposal won’t be finalized until April.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the changes reflect the priorities for the 92,600-student district, including spending more money on high-needs students, giving principals flexibility with their own budgets, and improving training for new teachers.

The proposed additions include:

  • $1.5 million to provide schools with between $80 and $180 extra per student to educate the district’s highest-needs students, including those who are homeless or living in foster care. Schools with higher concentrations of high-needs students would get more money per student. The district began doling out extra money for “direct certified” students this school year. But officials want to increase the amount next year, in part to account for undocumented students with high needs, who they suspect are being undercounted.
  • $1.5 million for pay raises for low-wage workers, such as bus drivers and custodians. Given the state’s booming economy, the district, like others in Colorado, has struggled to fill those positions. In 2015, the district raised its minimum wage to $12 an hour.
  • $1.47 million to provide every elementary school with the equivalent of at least one full-time social worker or psychologist, which some small schools now can’t afford. A tax increase passed by voters in 2016 included money for such positions. School principals could decide whether to spend it on one full-time person, for example, or two part-time people.
  • $408,000 to provide all elementary schools with “affective needs centers,” which are specialized programs for students with emotional needs, with the funding for an additional part-time paraprofessional, though principals could spend the money the way they want.
  • $600,000 for “tools to decrease out-of-school suspension, eliminate expulsions, and decrease habitually disruptive behaviors for our younger learners.” The presentation did not include specifics. The school board voted in June to revise its student discipline policy to limit suspensions and expulsions of preschool through third-grade students.
  • $293,000 to hire more eight more “behavior techs,” who are specially trained to help students with challenging behaviors. The district already has seven. They are “sent to schools for weeks at a time to help teachers and principals stabilize classroom environments.”
  • $232,000 for programs to train new teachers. One idea, Boasberg said, is to have teaching candidates spend a year in residency under a master teacher in a high-poverty school.

The proposed reductions include:

  • $2.47 million in cuts to the number of centrally budgeted “student equity and opportunity partners,” who are employees who help schools serve students with special needs.
  • $1.25 million in eliminating more than a dozen vacant positions in the student equity and opportunity office, which oversees special education, school health programs, and more.
  • $317,000 in reductions in supervisors in that same department.
  • $250,000 by eliminating contracts with an outside provider and instead serving a small number of the highest-needs students in a new district-run therapeutic day school.
  • $681,000 in staff cuts in the district’s curriculum and instruction department, which provides resources to schools. The presentation didn’t include specifics.

The district is also proposing some revenue-neutral changes. One of the most significant would allow struggling schools to better predict how much extra funding they will receive from the district to help improve student achievement. To do so, district officials are proposing to move several million dollars from the “budget assistance” fund to the “tiered supports” fund.

Low-performing schools designated to be closed and restarted would receive three years of consistent funding: $1.3 million over that time period for elementary schools, and $1.7 million for middle and high schools. If after three years a school’s performance had improved, it would be weaned off the highest funding tier over the course of an additional two years.

The school board is expected to vote on the final budget for 2018-19 in May.

hashtag lunch

What’s in a school lunch? A Denver district wants parents to see for themselves

A screenshot from Denver Public Schools' first #DPSDelicious video.

To show parents the days of microwaved chicken nuggets and jiggly fruit cocktail are over, Denver school district officials have produced a how-to cooking video to demonstrate the techniques and ingredients that go into their scratch-made chicken gumbo.

The Buzzfeed-y video, which has its own hashtag, #DPSDelicious, was posted on Denver Public Schools’ Facebook page Monday.

“Regardless of family circumstances, families are interested in, ‘What are you putting in my kids’ meals and who’s making them?’” said Theresa Peña, a former school board member who now works for the 92,600-student district heading outreach for the nutrition services department.

The video and other social media posts are an attempt to provide the answer: “We’re using the same ingredients you’re using when you cook a scratch meal for your family,” she said.

Cooking with fresh ingredients rather than warming processed ones is gaining popularity in school cafeterias nationwide. Denver has been at it for seven years now, Peña said, with about half of the district’s lunch entrees made from scratch. Fewer of the breakfast entrees are scratch-made because of time and budget constraints, she said.

The #DPSDelicious video, like many popular cooking videos, uses a pair of disembodied hands, jazzy music, and the magic of fast-forwarding to show how to make its chicken gumbo. The recipe is just 11 ingredients, including chicken, onions, celery, and crushed tomatoes. According to the district’s menu, it will be served over brown rice in all Denver cafeterias on Wednesday.

Also on the menu this week: green chili chicken lasagna, a spinach po’boy, and a grilled Mediterranean sandwich. The sandwich was the recent star of another Facebook feature, #MenuMonday, which the district uses to highlight new menu items and old favorites.

A goal for this school year, Peña said, was to expand the vegetarian options beyond grilled cheese and PB&J. Every hot entree now has a vegetarian counterpart: Students can choose between hamburgers and black bean burgers, for example, or chicken and vegetable lo mein.

Other, more perennial goals are to ensure that what’s on the menu matches what’s being served, and that quality is consistent across schools, she said. The district faced a backlash two years ago after a community organizer who was dining with district officials at a southwest Denver middle school snapped a photo of a lunch that featured frozen strawberries, a burned sandwich bun, and an empty spot on her tray because the kitchen ran out of fries.

Peña said the district has worked hard to train its kitchen staff to ensure the last student in line has the same choices as the first student, and that all of the choices taste good. “If we’re serving chicken gumbo, it should look and taste the same no matter what school you go to,” she said.

Watch the full video below.