Decision time

Pueblo teachers are cleared to strike after state regulators decline to intervene

Members of the audience, mostly teachers and paraprofessionals, react to the 3-2 vote by the Pueblo school board to reject a recommendation for pay increases. (Chris McLean, The Pueblo Chieftain)

Teachers in Pueblo could be on strike as soon as Monday after the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment declined to intervene in a dispute between that district and its unions.

Members of the Pueblo Education Association and the Pueblo Paraprofessional Education Association in the southern Colorado city voted to strike last month after the school board rejected pay raises. Under Colorado law, the unions filed notice of their intent to strike with state regulators, who had the option to intervene to mediate the dispute.

In a ruling issued Wednesday afternoon, Alexandra Hall, director of the state Division of Labor Standards and Statistics, said neither party had submitted a proper request for intervention, and in light of that fact, the division would not intervene.

Because the unions have already filed their notice of intent to strike, there are no legal barriers to the teachers walking off the job at this point, state officials said.

“If circumstances change, we will re-evaluate them,” Hall wrote. “If all parties ask us to intervene to assist in resolving the remaining economic issues, we will.

“We are mindful of the practical disruption of a strike at the end of a school year, especially for graduating high school seniors. The chief responsibility for such disruption rests with the PEA, PPEA, and School District, and we urge them to keep working toward a resolution of this dispute.”

Teacher strikes are rare in Colorado. Denver teachers walked off the job in 1994. Pueblo teachers have never struck before, though they came close in 1998, when state regulators did mediate a resolution. The department’s decision comes less than a week after thousands of teachers rallied at the Capitol for more school funding, an event that was not a strike because teachers used their personal leave to engage in political activity.

In her decision, Hall said she didn’t think the tools available to the division, such as mediation or arbitration, would make a difference at this time.

Pueblo teachers union president Suzanne Ethredge said teachers plan to be on strike starting Monday. They’ll be picketing at several schools, along main roads in Pueblo, and at the district’s administrative offices. Ethredge said they’re hoping for a swift resolution. 

“We are certainly hoping it is days and not weeks,” she said. “We hope no more than three to five days.”

Teachers and paraprofessionals in the district want the school board to agree to an independent fact finder’s recommendation for 2 percent cost-of-living raises and an additional $30 a month toward health insurance premiums. Teachers in the district earned an average of $47,617 this year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Ethredge said the dispute goes beyond pay, though. Educators want more of a voice in decisions that affect their classrooms, she said.

“We understand it is a disruption, and it’s an unfortunate step that we wish we had not had to take,” she said. “We believe for the long-term health of the district, we need to do this. Educator voices have not been heard on decisions that affect classrooms and students. We hope that, although drastic, the strike will help break that cycle.”

In a statement sent via email, spokesperson Dalton Sprouse said district officials believe the Department of Labor could have asserted jurisdiction for the sake of the public interest. Officials also suggested there could be raises next year.

“We believe that in the 2018-2019 school year, our finances will be more stable, and one that would allow us to provide additional compensation to all employees,” the statement said. “In the event of a strike we will make every effort to continue our educational programming where possible and will take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of our students. We will continue to work to resolve this dispute as soon as possible.”

Since the strike vote on April 20, Pueblo teachers have staged a series of “sick-outs” that have closed at least one school every day, a district spokesman said.

In an email sent earlier Wednesday, before the state ruling, district officials warned teachers that using sick leave in this way was not an allowed use and said that teachers who don’t show up to work will lose both pay and health insurance benefits for those days.

“Effective immediately, members of the professional staff who use excused leave to participate in either ‘sick-outs’ or a strike will be subject to a full salary deduction for each day of absence based on the staff member’s current daily rate of pay,” the email said. “Also, during any period of salary deduction, staff members will be subject to a suspension of benefits.”

This story has been updated to add comments from union president Suzanne Ethredge and district spokesperson Dalton Sprouse.

Statistics

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Colorado teachers rally at the Capitol for more education funding. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

As a rallying cry, “We’re 30th in the nation for teacher pay!” doesn’t quite inspire outrage.

But that is, in fact, where Colorado ranked in 2016, despite reports to the contrary.

A series of unfortunate events led to an inaccurate statistic being spread far and wide — that Colorado ranked 46th in the U.S. in teacher pay.

The eye-popping number in a state with a booming economy found its way onto social media posts and signs at last week’s massive teacher rallies in Colorado, as well as into stories in Chalkbeat and many, many other media outlets. But it was wrong.

Here’s how the mistake happened — and how groups with different agendas have seized on the snafu to score points:

The Colorado Department of Education changed its data collection system during the 2014-15 school year and built a new data query system from scratch, officials said. Some teachers were left out of the system, resulting in artificially lower average salaries for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

When the nation’s largest teachers union was preparing its 2017 state rankings, it used the 2016 average teacher salary provided by the Colorado Department of Education. That was $46,155.

Officials in Colorado later realized the actual average salary for the year in question was $51,204. They informed the National Education Association in May 2017, but the report had already been published. The union didn’t update the number until it released its 2018 state rankings, which came out shortly before thousands of teachers rallied at the Colorado State Capitol.

The revised figure meant Colorado ranked 30th in 2016, not 46th, and 31st in 2017.

The average annual salary for last year was $51,810, according to the state education department, and the average annual salary for this year is $52,728. Colorado teacher salaries were 15 percent below the national average of $59,660 in 2017.

As always, that statewide average obscures a wide range of teacher salaries in different districts. The Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts have average salaries above $70,000, while many rural districts have averages that hover near $30,000.

Some districts use pay-for-performance and incentive systems that also complicate the picture. The state education department reports base salaries that don’t include those incentives. For example, Denver Public Schools estimates its average salary at $57,753 with incentives included. That’s $7,000 more than the base pay listed on state education department’s website. However, some teachers dislike the uncertainty that this system introduces into their paychecks. The union has negotiated higher base pay and is still asking for changes to the incentive system.

The change in the ranking, which was reported by other media outlets, doesn’t answer the question of how much teachers should be paid or the best way to raise their pay. Nonetheless, the ranking has become a key feature of the debate in Colorado, and it’s unlikely to disappear from signs at protests or the public narrative anytime soon.

In comments on Chalkbeat Colorado’s Facebook page, teachers have continued to cite the incorrect “46th in the nation” figure, while on Twitter, some critics called the stat “fake news” and said teachers shouldn’t complain about pay when they have summers off.

The conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics seized on the new ranking to dismiss the teacher rallies.

“So, if we’re in the middle of the pack for pay, why exactly are teachers rallying today and tomorrow?” said a blog post titled “LIAR LIAR.” “Why are teachers costing the state $11.5 million? Why are teachers forcing families to scramble for childcare? This entire rally is based on nothing. Nothing.”

Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said the change in ranking shouldn’t distract from the problems Colorado faces attracting or keeping teachers.

“We’re still below the national average,” she said. “We’re not in the top 25. If you took out Cherry Creek and Boulder, which are significantly higher than other districts in the state, that average would drop pretty quickly. … For us, it’s not so much about that ranking but do the salaries match where folks are living?”

A report on teacher shortages found that 95 percent of rural districts paid average salaries below the cost of living in those communities. At the same time, the cost of living in the Denver metro area has increased rapidly in recent years. Even as teacher pay has increased, it has not kept pace with inflation in many districts.

A recent report that cites American Community Survey data, not the Colorado Department of Education, placed Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries – that is, how teacher pay compares to the pay of other people with similar education levels.

next steps

After teacher rallies, the work ‘shifts to the local community level,’ Colorado union president says

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Thousands of Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

The wave of activism that brought thousands of red-shirted teachers to the Colorado State Capitol needs to continue at the local level in order to boost teacher pay or school funding, the leader of Colorado’s largest teachers union said Monday.

Teachers need to convince local school boards to raise salaries, Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said, and they need to convince neighbors to vote for a statewide tax in November that would raise another $1.6 billion annually for K-12 education.

“It’s safe to say we won’t be seeing a massive statewide strike,” Dallman said. “The work really shifts to the local community level.”

This is a key difference between Colorado and other states that have seen statewide teacher walkouts. Here lawmakers alone can’t solve this problem.

That doesn’t mean there’s no work to be done at the Capitol. The Colorado General Assembly meets until May 9, and negotiations continue on an overhaul to the public employees pension system. The Republican-backed version that passed the Senate asks public employees, including teachers, to put in an additional 3 percent of their pay and raises the retirement age to 65, while the Democratic version in the House uses taxpayer money, not employee contributions, to buy down an unfunded liability estimated to range from $32 billion to $50 billion.

The 2018-19 budget, signed Monday by Gov. John Hickenlooper, sends school districts an extra $475 per student, a 6.2 percent increase. The budget stabilization or negative factor, the amount that Colorado withholds from local districts when compared to constitutional requirements, is the smallest it’s been since the budget maneuver was invented in 2009 in response to the Great Recession. The budget also includes an extra $30 million for rural districts and an extra $10 million to help address teacher shortages.

Some local unions already are negotiating raises with their school districts.

Dallman also holds out hope that more money will be found for teachers before the end of the session. State Rep. Millie Hamner, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said she isn’t aware of any additional bills coming on school funding, and the legislature is under pressure from the governor’s office to put any extra money that can be found into increasing the state’s statutory reserves in preparation for the next downturn.

“There isn’t a shortage of interests and needs that the state budget hasn’t been able to address,” Hamner said.

That’s where Initiative 93 comes in. This proposed ballot measure would raise the corporate tax rate and the income tax rate for people earning more than $150,000 a year, as well as change how residential property is assessed for schools. It would raise an estimated $1.6 billion a year for schools.

Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

Unlike the previous tax proposal, which created winners and losers among Colorado’s 178 districts, every district stands to benefit from this new measure.

Dallman said teacher walkouts have helped raise awareness of school funding, and it’s up to teachers to press that point in their local communities.

“The message has to be grassroots,” Dallman said. “People need to have a better understanding of the impact of this underfunding on the school down the road.”

Republican lawmakers wonder why voters should give the state any more money when the legislature just passed a budget with increases for transportation, education, and the pension system. All told, lawmakers had $1.3 billion more to work with than they did for the 2017-18 budget.

“It’s challenging for me to go to the taxpayers and say, yes, we had $1.3 billion in surplus revenue, but we need more money from you – whatever the issue is,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican. “That becomes a challenge for me.”

The GOP argues that local school boards can ask their voters for additional local property tax money if needed.

But voters around the state have varied greatly in their willingness to pass local measures, and advocates for more funding say that’s contributed to inequities that can only be addressed by the state.

The clear steps laid out by Dallman – protect pension benefits, negotiate pay raises, pass Initiative 93 – also include electing the union’s endorsed candidate for governor, Cary Kennedy, and legislators who will support more money for education.

Those steps still need to be articulated to rank-and-file teachers. At last week’s rallies, many teachers said they don’t know what the next steps will be, though they hoped the large rallies increase awareness. One said she knew the union had endorsed a gubernatorial candidate but couldn’t remember her name, even though Kennedy twice addressed the crowd and Dallman’s parting words included a call to volunteer for Kennedy’s campaign.

Many teachers said they were regular voters,and some had canvassed for union-backed candidates in local races. Now they see a need to be politically engaged beyond that in order to raise awareness of pressing needs in their schools. Those range from large class sizes and a lack of counselors to broken desks and outdated technology.

Andrea Lohse is a middle school math teacher in the Cherry Creek School District. Her building still has asbestos. One stall in the bathroom is missing its door, and too often there’s no soap. Class sizes are large. Yet she’s never protested before.

“I never thought this would be me.” She said she’s never been involved in politics before, either. But now, she said, teachers are tired of their working conditions. “We’re fed up with the funding and the level of respect we get.”

Lisa Schott, an elementary school teacher-librarian from Colorado Springs, said class sizes at her school can go up to 30 students. She said politics is outside her comfort zone, but she’s realizing how important activism is to making change.

“I don’t like that it’s a political thing, but the realization is you have to speak out,” she said.

Kira Aarestad, who teaches English and leadership at an alternative high school in the Adams 12 Five Star District, said, “I am surprised we finally have enough people having this conversation.” The challenge will be how to keep momentum, she said. “I hope this gives the push that we need.”

Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.