In deal with union, Newark agrees to pay raises for teachers with graduate degrees

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León recently made a deal with the teachers union to settle grievances from their 2012 contract.

Newark teachers are due for a $2.5 million windfall this year, and hundreds more can expect hefty raises in the future, thanks to a new agreement between the district and the city teachers union.

The agreement stems from an arbitrator’s finding that the district violated several provisions of the 2012 teachers contract, which was touted at the time as a national model. In the document inked this month, the district agreed to make several payments demanded by the arbitrator and to negotiate pay raises for teachers who earn advanced degrees — ending a feature of the 2012 contract that replaced such raises with one-time bonuses for teachers who completed a controversial training program.

While the terms of the raises must still be negotiated, they could prove costly to the district. The union estimates that between 200 and 300 teachers who earned degrees in recent years are eligible for retroactive raises which, in the past, ranged from $2,500 to $4,000 depending on the type of degree.

The payments highlight the bind that Newark’s new superintendent, Roger León, finds himself in as he tries to enact his own policies while at the same time confronting costly unresolved matters left by the previous two superintendents — all without the massive influx of private funding that bankrolled many of his predecessors’ efforts.

In fact, the contract settlements may be the least of León’s worries.

At a school-board meeting this month, León said a legal matter triggered by the previous administration has temporarily blocked him from hiring attendance counselors — a key component of his plan to combat the district’s severe absenteeism problem. And, without giving specifics, he cited a fine related to employee health insurance that the district incurred in 2015 but never paid.

The current price tag: At least $48 million, León told the board.

“P.S., I began on July 1,” he quipped — a pointed reminder that his financial headaches, for now, are largely inherited.

The agreement between León and the Newark Teachers Union includes $1.7 million for various groups of teachers who were shortchanged under the terms of the 2012 contract, according to the 2017 arbitration decision. (Former Superintendent Christopher Cerf appealed the decision, but a superior-court judge recently upheld it.)

It also includes $816,000 in raises for the district’s highest-paid teachers, which stemmed from a clause in last year’s contract enabling the new administration to renegotiate raises. León agreed to increase salaries by the maximum amount allowed by the contract — from 2.95 to 3.25 percent.

The most far-reaching — and expensive — part of the agreement is likely to be the pay hike for teachers who earn postgraduate degrees.

The 2012 contract did away with the district’s traditional salary system, which put teachers with master’s or doctorate degrees on a higher pay scale. Instead, the contract allowed for teachers who completed a district-approved graduate program to earn a one-time bonus of up to $20,000.

Then-Superintendent Cami Anderson and Cerf, who at the time was state education commissioner, had two goals in pushing for the change. One was to reduce costs. Calling the graduate-degree raises “prohibitively expensive,” Anderson said during an arbitration hearing that the district expected to pay for the one-time awards with private money that wealthy donors, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, had provided to finance an overhaul of the district.

The other objective was to spur changes in teacher-training programs. District officials did not believe that most universities had sufficiently revamped their programs to prepare teachers for the state’s new, more rigorous “Common Core” learning standards that teachers now were expected to help students meet. The idea was to award bonuses only to teachers who attended Common Core-aligned programs, which would pressure colleges and universities to update their approach.

“This was all to incentivize the higher-ed community to do more, better, faster,” Anderson said in her testimony, “and also about rewarding teachers who were bettering themselves — not on the old way of teaching, but on the way that the new Common Core would demand.”

The contract called for a committee with representatives from the city’s teachers union and higher-education to recommend criteria for the district to use in approving programs. However, the district never convened that committee, according to the arbitrator’s findings.

Instead, more than two years after the contract was signed, the district on its own approved a single program: the Relay Graduate School of Education, a relatively new and controversial institution with close ties to the charter-school sector. Only teachers who completed that program could earn the $20,000 bonus.

The arbitrator, James Mastriani, said last year that the district must actually convene the selection committee and determine which degrees will merit a bonus payment. Teachers who previously earned degrees from approved programs would then be eligible for the applicable bonuses.

However, the deal between León and the union abolishes that bonus program and restores a version of the old system, where teachers with graduate degrees from any institution received higher pay.

The value of their degrees going forward will be determined next year, when the two sides negotiate a new contract to replace the current one, which expires on June 30. Crucially for the union, the salary increases will also grow members’ pensions — a benefit not offered by the one-time bonuses.

“Instead of continuing to try and make an unwieldy, tainted system work,” Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon wrote Monday in an email to his members, “we got the district to agree in writing to work with us on putting the original time-tested system back in place during our next contract negotiations.”

The agreement adds that any employee who earned a graduate degree since the start of the 2012 contract will be eligible for a retroactive salary increase. Union officials pointed out that it does not put any restrictions on those degrees — meaning hundreds of teachers could eventually get checks with sizable back payments.

In an interview Tuesday, León insisted that this was not a blanket pay hike. Instead, he said he would push during negotiations to give raises only to employees who earned advanced degrees that are relevant to their jobs or teaching assignments.

“We will review every single one of those people’s degrees,” he said.

It will not be clear until after next year’s contract negotiations how much the raises will cost. It’s possible they could eventually dwarf the price of the $20,000 bonuses if teachers who receive the salary bumps remain in the district for many years.

León said he did not expect that. He added that, with the private money that paid for many elements of the 2012 contract now spent, it would be hard for the district today to afford the bonuses.

“Where am I going to get that money from?” he said.

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. Here’s the word from Denver Public Schools spokesperson Will Jones: “This was one of the items negotiated (Wednesday) night and early into the morning (Thursday). The result of that discussion was that teachers will not receive back pay.”

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.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”