meet the new boss

New Colorado teachers union chief: Spring walkouts raised public awareness of school needs

PHOTO: Courtesy CEA
Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert

Amie Baca-Oehlert, a school counselor from the Adams 12 district north of Denver, recently took the helm of the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association. She’s served as the vice president of the state’s largest teachers union since 2012, working closely with recent president Kerrie Dallman. In that time, union-backed candidates have gained ground on school boards across the Front Range, while at the statehouse, the union fended off efforts to weaken licensure and partnered with conservatives to roll back standardized tests. But the last session ended with a political defeat: Changes to the public employee pension system significantly raised the retirement age for teachers.

Baca-Oehlert was elected as president in April, on the heels of two days of teacher protests at the Capitol that shut down schools across the state. She takes over as the union faces an uncertain political environment. Teacher protests generated renewed engagement, but the union’s preferred gubernatorial candidate lost the Democratic primary. There’s a competitive governor’s race, control of the state Senate is also up for grabs, and a third attempt to raise taxes for education could appear on the ballot. What happens in November could open up new possibilities to advance the union’s agenda or shut doors.

Baca-Oehlert recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her top priorities, whether she has any regrets about wading into the primary, and what the lasting impact of April’s teacher walkouts might be.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been in a leadership position with CEA since 2012. As you take over as president, what are the biggest challenges? What are your top priorities?

School funding certainly is top of mind and something we need to continue to work toward, to make sure that every child regardless of where they live here in Colorado has access to a quality public education.

And teacher voice, ensuring that the professionals … are honored and respected and listened to. That’s something I really value as a leader. They are the ones closest to the students doing the work.

When (immediate past president) Kerrie Dallman took over, she said in an interview that the union couldn’t just be the voice of no, that the union had to present a positive vision of reform. Do you still feel like that’s important politically or do you feel like the political environment has changed?

There is broader understanding that our schools aren’t broken or something that needs to be fixed, but we aren’t necessarily doing right by our schools or by our students, and that gets back to funding. When you look back at the last 10 years of underfunding our schools and what that has done, what that has meant to schools and communities, there is broader understanding that we need to support our schools. We need to resource our schools. We need to give the educators and teachers working with students the tools and resources they need to serve students’ needs, whether that be more mental health supports, things for school safety, down to supplies. We put out a report that teachers are spending on average $656 a year on supplies for their students.

There’s a good likelihood there will be a tax increase to fund education on the ballot in November. We’ve been here before in Colorado. What can you do to have a different outcome this time?

It’s doing that talking to people, sharing our stories. I think one of the most powerful things from the April Days of Action was people were able to tell their stories. It shifted the conversation. People were able to really see and understand what’s happening in our public schools and how educators in Colorado are treated. They definitely have to have bachelor’s degrees. Many of them have master’s degrees, yet they’re working two and three jobs, many of their own children are on free- and reduced-[price] lunch. We were able to help people understand that we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, yet we’re treating our educators and our students in this manner. People were able to share those stories and help people understand we can and should do better by the students of Colorado.

You waded into the Democratic primary, not only endorsing Cary Kennedy but also running pretty negative ads against Mike Johnston and Jared Polis. Polis is now the nominee. Do you have any regrets about that?

We didn’t run those ads, that’s an independent expenditure committee that ran those ads. But I don’t regret that we as an organization went into the primary. We wanted to ensure there was a candidate who was a champion for students and public education and that education was going to be something that mattered in this election for governor. I certainly believe there was a lot of talk about education and education became an issue in the governor’s race. I believe it still will be in the general election. We have an internal process for how we recommend candidates, and that process will be going on for the general election.

Just for the record, you were a significant donor to the independent expenditure committee that ran those ads.

Yes, we did contribute.

Do you have any concerns that if there is a Polis administration, he won’t be as receptive to the perspective that you all bring?

No. The union is 35,000 educators across Colorado who are Colorado citizens. I would hope that anyone sitting in the governor’s office would understand the value and the need to listen to educators, to hear their voices and have educators at the table as partners.

Is that true also if Walker Stapleton is the next governor? As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated changes to the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system that were strongly opposed by the teachers union. There’s a challenging history there. What do you see as your job if there’s a Republican in the governor’s office?

My job is to come to the table. No matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, it’s about coming to the table to do what’s best for students and public education. My role as president of the CEA would be to share our issues, share our concerns, and hopefully work together to do what’s right.

In the conversation about school funding, many conservatives ask what kind of outcomes we’ll get if we invest more in schools. They also raise the issue of teacher effectiveness and being really rigorous about having a highly effective teacher in every classroom. What’s your answer to that? What improvements can we expect if we invest more?

What we can expect is we can have a system that’s supporting students, supporting their needs, and that in turn leads to greater student success. We’ve seen what the underfunding of our schools has done. We have more students who have significant mental health needs. We have more students who are entering into school without enough food, without school supplies, who sometimes don’t even have shoes. When we can meet students needs, we know it leads to greater student success.

We’ve not been afraid of teacher accountability or teacher evaluation. It’s been an unfunded mandate, and districts have not been able to implement that system well.

In addition to more resources, is there anything you would support to improve student achievement?

Beyond resources? There are certainly things we could look at in terms of teacher recruitment and teacher retention and how we’re providing professional development. And that’s something we’ve been very heavily involved in with our COpilot program, online, teacher-provided, vetted, professional development that meets an individual teachers needs.

I think we also need to look really closely at how we’re supporting educators in those first one to three years. If you look at the medical field, you don’t get a six-week training and then you’re off on your own. You get several years of side-by-side. We could really look at how we support that teacher in their first one to three years and doing more collaboration and more co-teaching before you are off on your own.

One of the other things we need to look at is the whole role of social-emotional needs of students. My background is as a school counselor so I have a lot of experience in that work and knowledge. I definitely believe a child cannot learn if they are not safe socially and emotionally. That has gone out of our curriculum in a lot of places, and we need to look at what we can do in our system so we’re helping the whole child and not just that academic side.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was recently quoted as saying teachers unions are becoming more political, not less. Do you agree with that?

We just need to maintain what we’ve been doing. I agree that we certainly don’t need to become less political. The nature of public education is political. We elect school board members who make decisions about what happens in our classrooms. We elect legislators who make decisions. It is a political job. In that sense, you have to engage in that work to have some sense of control over what’s happening to you as a professional. Again, we are seeing people really come to realize that. We saw that with the April Days of Action. People are realizing, “I have a voice. We have a process. We live in a democratic country and we have an ability and a responsibility to exercise that voice and come together.” People are not going to sit by and just watch things happen to them. People are going to exercise their voice and come together.

What did you gain by the teacher walkouts in April and how will we see that reverberate going forward?

The biggest gain was the public awareness that came out of that. I think a lot of people were just not aware of what the last 10 years of underfunding our schools has meant, what the impact on individual educators and students has been.

It was very validating for many of our members who often feel like being a teacher is a very difficult job. There are a lot of expectations on you, and sometimes you don’t hear the thankfulness or the gratitude people have. Just the honks and the support and the people saying, “we stand with you,” that gave them a boost. It kind of reinvigorated them to say, “I have a voice, and I can use my voice to make a difference for myself and my profession and my students.”

 

resentment and hurt

‘We are all educators:’ How the teachers strike opened at a rift at one Denver middle school network that will take time to mend

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Students at Kepner Beacon Middle School work on an assignment.

For the first time since the Denver teacher strike exposed divisions in their ranks, the 100 adults who make the Beacon middle school network run gathered in the same room.

Teachers, some still wearing red for the union cause, brought breakfast burritos to share. Upbeat soul music pumped through the speakers, an attempt to set a positive tone.  

Speaking to the group assembled Friday for a long-scheduled planning day in the cafeteria of Grant Beacon Middle School, Executive Principal Alex Magaña opened by acknowledging the awkwardness that had taken a toll on a school community that prides itself on a strong culture.

Some teachers who had gone on strike — exhausted by the experience and exhilarated by the outcome — felt snubbed. Where was the celebration of what they had just fought for?

School administrators were smarting for another reason: A large number of teachers did not return to work on Thursday after the tentative pact was signed, making for another hard day.

Just as it was starting, the effort to heal the Beacon school community was stumbling a bit.

One day after the end of the three-day strike over teacher pay, students at the Beacon schools had a day off Friday, giving leaders the opportunity to begin repairing any damage done. The district administration shared resources with schools, too, including a “lessons learned” tipsheet from the recent Los Angeles teachers strike.

The challenge is proving unexpectedly daunting at the city’s two Beacon schools — Grant Beacon in southeast Denver and Kepner Beacon in southwest Denver — which share a common central administrative staff, approach, and mission to serve the city’s neediest students.

“It’s never been administration-versus-teachers, district-versus-teachers, in the culture we have created here,” said Magaña, who oversees the two schools. “We have a lot of good leadership, a lot of input from teachers. But this caught everyone kind of by surprise.”

By “this,” Magaña means the tension on the two campuses before, during, and after the strike that put Denver in an unfamiliar national glare. The 93,000-student district is better known for its unique brand of at times controversial education reform — of which the Beacon network is part — than it is for labor strife and division in the educator ranks.

As it became evident that the teachers union was intent on striking, Magaña said he sent a message to his teachers, staff, and administrators.

“I called it out two weeks ago: Be careful with what you say, because it’s going to cause harm and impact our culture,” he said. “Everyone has their own right to make their own individual decision. Respect it. And people were trying to respect it.”

From Magaña’s perspective, it didn’t always happen. At Kepner Beacon, where 96 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunches, the young corps of teachers “grouped together and suddenly had this camaraderie, which is something that is part of our culture and that makes us successful,” Magaña said.

All but a few Kepner Beacon teachers went out on strike. Magaña harbored concerns, though, saying some striking teachers “were guilting teachers into joining for solidarity.” Teachers who crossed picket lines told him they felt alienated, he said.

Linsey Cobb, a special education teacher and special education team leader at Kepner Beacon, disputes that. She said every teacher wholeheartedly supported each teacher’s decision.

Cobb herself was torn about striking. She said she stood with teachers fighting for a system they believed would pay them a better, fairer wage. But the third-year teacher ended up reporting to work as usual Monday morning, feeling too strong of a pull to fulfill her responsibilities supporting students with individualized education plans — the complex and sometimes confounding binding documents for students with special needs.

Cobb said she was not fully prepared by what she experienced that morning.

“Even though I am very close with my students, I felt incredibly isolated,” she said. “I got the weirdest feeling. I got a lot of, ‘Miss, why aren’t you striking? Don’t you believe what teachers are fighting for?’ I was like, ‘I do!’ I had a little bit of an internal struggle.”

After attending the big teachers union rally Monday at the Capitol, Cobb said she woke up Tuesday and decided to join her colleagues picketing, which she did for the strike’s duration.

The strike brought to the forefront just how different the two Beacon campuses are. At Grant Beacon, 80 percent of students qualify for subsidized lunch — slightly above the district average. That part of the city, like much of Denver, is gentrifying. The southwest Denver neighborhood around Kepner is not. The school is a safe harbor from violence and trauma.

About half of Grant Beacon students showed up for school during the strike, and six in 10 teachers joined the strike. Four miles and a world away at Kepner Beacon, 90 percent of students showed up for school — and all but a few teachers were out on strike.

Against the backdrop of the strike, Magaña said he emphasized that words matter. Everyone in the buildings, he thought, not just teachers, ought to be considered educators. That was the role everyone was thrust into — administrators, deans, and district central office staff who through no choice of their own had to cover for absent teachers. Magaña, too. He taught math.

“We maintained a positive culture through a really weird and complicated time,” said Tristan Connett, who as Kepner’s dean of students was pressed into service to teach eighth-grade reading and language arts. “Not just for students, but all the adults, everyone included.”

Outside Kepner Beacon each morning of the strike, teachers huddled over donuts and coffee. Parents brought them hand-warmers in the 20-degree chill. One teacher sat in her car with the engine running to record a video message to her students, telling them where she was and spelling out the day’s lesson plan before she joined the picket line, Cobb said.

The Beacon schools promote character-building and use personalized learning, using data and technology to tailor instruction to individual students. As “innovation schools,” the schools are exempt from some state laws and aspects of the teachers union contract. Both schools were “green,” the second-highest ranking, in the district’s most recent school ratings.

Cracks in school culture did show during the strike. Magaña said one teacher at Grant Beacon was hurt by the negative reaction he received from striking colleagues.

The strike’s sudden end just after 6 a.m. Thursday led to mixed messages and confusion about what was expected of teachers that day, deepening rifts at the Beacon schools.

Cobb, the Kepner special education teacher, said teachers somehow got what turned out to be incorrect information from the union that they couldn’t be late for the start of school if they wanted to return.

Many striking teachers did not come back to school Thursday. That was out of step with the district as a whole, which saw more than 80 percent of teachers back in classrooms.

Some Beacon teachers, Magaña said, “said they were mentally and physically exhausted.” What, he asked, does that tell everyone who took on unfamiliar roles to keep the schools open?

When teachers, administrators, and staff arrived for Friday morning’s meeting, they congregated at tables with colored pencils and “reflection forms.” Everyone was asked to write down answers to two questions: What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your colleagues?

“I also brought out the obvious — the elephant in the room,” Magaña said. “There are hurt feelings. There is resentment from teachers to staff to students to parents. That is something we can’t pretend isn’t there, and we put it out there and acknowledge it to move forward.”

The message from the network administration left a number of teachers disappointed.

“Every teacher who went out on strike believed in it, we got this victory, and it wasn’t celebrated as a whole,” Cobb said. “It was more like there was an acknowledgement of what we want to repair. OK, but we felt like we deserved a little celebration for what we accomplished.”

Several teachers took up administrators’ offers to speak in private throughout the day, and when everyone gathered to wrap things up, Cobb said there was acknowledgement of what teachers had accomplished. Magaña said Saturday he doesn’t regret starting off the day like he did.

“We had to acknowledge all of the feelings of the group,” he said. “It was about all of us working together for a common ground.”

Under the tentative deal union members are expected to vote on next week, all of the teachers in the Beacon network will see their base pay increase. The incentives Kepner Beacon teachers receive for teaching in a “highest priority” school will be slightly smaller but will continue.

After the Presidents’ Day holiday Monday, teachers and students will return to school on Tuesday and try to the maintain culture that has contributed to promising academic progress.

“It’s about trust,” Magaña said. “Some of it was cracked a little it. There was no contention in the room (Friday). It was really coming in with openness and willingness by everyone to say, ‘It’s done, and we did the right thing for ourselves. Now it’s time to come closer together.’”

“Normalcy will happen,” added Cobb, the teacher. “But it might take a bit.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said all DPS schools were off Friday, when only some were. 

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.