Human Resources

Aurora’s school board will decide whether teachers at one school can be paid more than others

Paris Elementary School teacher Elizabeth Rodriguez checks in with students on Aug. 28 2015. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

AURORA — Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn wants to give teachers at an academically struggling elementary school more money for sticking around.

Paris Elementary School, which is just north of Colfax Avenue in the Original Aurora neighborhood, has suffered some of the district’s highest teacher churn rates during the last five years.

Staff and district leaders believe this is one reason students — who are mostly Latino and black, and come from low-income homes — are earning poor marks on the state’s standardized tests.

As part of a package of school improvement efforts, Munn told teachers last spring they’d receive a stipend — half then, half in the fall — if they were rated effective and returned to Paris for the 2015-2016 school year.

Of 28 teachers at the school, 20 qualified for the incentive by earning effective ratings and returning this year, a district spokeswoman said. Each of them would receive about an extra $1,000 under the plan.

The Aurora Education Association, however, says Munn doesn’t have the authority to pay teachers any amount other than what is specified in the district’s collective bargaining contract. The union filed a formal grievance. An arbitrator agreed with the union in July, but the decision ultimately rests with the school board.

The board is expected to decide Tuesday at its meeting whether the district may move forward with the plan.

In taking up the issue, the school board will do more than decide whether Munn can give teachers retention bonuses. The board also will wrestle with two questions that have vexed policymakers and school districts across the nation: Should teachers be paid more if they are in hard-to-staff schools and should teacher pay be tied to evaluations?

Munn believes he has the authority to pay teachers at Paris more because the district-union contract describes the salary schedule as the “minimum” teachers must be paid.

“I looked at our agreement and under the agreement, in my mind, it was a settled issue,” Munn said. “There’s a whole sort of issues we know we need to bargain. For the things not in the bucket we move ahead. … We’re not trying to go around anybody or go around the agreement. None of this was meant to be an end run around the union.”

Even though the union opposes the plan, it wants to see teachers at Paris receive the stipends they were promised. But before any other promises are made, the district and union must negotiate, said Amy Nichols, the union’s president.

“Very simply, the matter is to us that salaries cannot be unilaterally increased for one group of teachers,” Nichols said. “It has to be negotiated. We would be interested in having this conversation while we have a task force that comprehensively looks at the issue — not just at Paris, but across the district.”

Munn said the Paris Retention Initiative — the district’s name for the bonus pay plan — is a specific solution for a specific problem.

“We don’t have the same issue or same circumstance anywhere else,” Munn said.

In 2012, three out of every 10 teachers decided to leave Paris. In 2013, more than one-third of teachers moved to another school or left the profession. And last school year, more than half the staff was new. In a drastic reversal, this school year nearly three-quarters of the staff returned.

The district has proposed creating a broader system for hard-to-fill positions in district schools. But that has been put on hold, Munn said.

Research has shown that paying teachers more money to stay at schools with difficult working conditions largely hasn’t worked.

“These types of incremental bonuses or raises are not sufficient,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, which tracks issues such as teacher pay. “They’re a well-meaning gesture. But they’re not effective.”

Nichols said other issues contribute to a teacher’s decision to leave the classroom.

“Money is nice, money is great,” Nichols said. “But the retention issue is deeper than pay. It’s about having a leader in the building, having a team teacher working together, about feeling supported, and having the resources to meet the needs of the students in their building.”

Munn agrees.

“I would say nobody, including myself, believes increasing pay by itself is effective,” he said. “It’s in combination with other things you’re doing.”

Other efforts at Paris include a new principal and assistant principal, and more teacher training. The district is also considering including Paris in an effort to free schools from some local and state red-tape.

“I think [the stipend] is probably going to prove an added expense for the district that isn’t going to pay off in higher retention,” Walsh said. “The other things they’re doing there is going to be a larger factor.”

The total for the stipends is about $40,000, according to district documents.

Chalkbeat Colorado made more than a dozen interview requests in person and electronically with teachers at Paris.

Only one, who asked to be identified only as K.C., agreed to speak briefly after school Friday.

“I think we should pay teachers like we pay baseball players,” he said. “If they’re good, pay them more.”

Munn stressed the Paris retention program is not a step toward creating a pay-for-performance model in Aurora.

The state’s three largest school systems — Denver, Jefferson County and Douglas County — all have some variation of a pay-for-performance model. The Harrison School District near Colorado Springs is also considered a national pioneer for linking teacher pay to evaluation ratings.

And under Colorado law, this is the first school year that teachers could lose their non-probationary status if they receive low back-to-back ratings.

But national research on whether linking pay to student outcomes is an effective strategy for better test scores remains mixed.

“If you give teachers more money, they’ll work harder than they already are: That is a false premise,” Nichols said. “Teachers are always working hard — harder than they ever have. What we need to do is pay teachers well to begin with.”

performance based

Aurora superintendent is getting a bonus following the district’s improved state ratings

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Aurora’s school superintendent will receive a 5 percent bonus amounting to $11,820, in a move the board did not announce.

Instead, the one-time bonus was slipped into a routine document on staff transitions.

Tuesday, the school board voted on the routine document approving all the staff changes, and the superintendent bonus, without discussion.

The document, which usually lists staff transfers, resignations, and new hires, included a brief note at the end that explained the additional compensation by stating it was being provided because of the district’s rise in state ratings.

“Pursuant to the superintendent’s contract, the superintendent is entitled to a one-time bonus equal to 5 percent of his base salary as the result of the Colorado Department of Education raising APS’ district performance framework rating,” the note states.

The superintendent’s contract, which was renewed earlier this year, states the superintendent can receive up to a 10 percent bonus per year for improvements in state ratings. The same bonus offer was in Munn’s previous contract with the district.

The most recent state ratings, which were released in the fall, showed the state had noted improvements in Aurora Public Schools — enough for the district to be off the state’s watchlist for low performance. Aurora would have been close to the five years of low-performance ratings that would have triggered possible state action.

“I am appreciative of the Board’s recognition of APS’ overall improvement,” Superintendent Munn said in a statement Wednesday. “It is important to recognize that this improvement has been thanks to a team effort and as such I am donating the bonus to the APS Foundation and to support various classroom projects throughout APS.”

This is the only bonus that Munn has received in Aurora, according to a district spokesman.

In addition to the bonus, and consistent with his contract and the raises other district employees will receive, Munn will also get a 2.93 percent salary increase on July 1. This will bring his annual salary to $243,317.25.

At the end of the board meeting, Bruce Wilcox, president of the teachers union questioned the way the vote was handled, asking why the compensation changes for teachers and compensation changes for other staff were placed as separate items on the meeting’s agenda, but the bonus was simply included at the bottom of a routine report, without its own notice.

“It is clear that the association will unfortunately have to become a greater, louder voice,” Wilcox said. “It is not where we want to be.”

budget book

Aurora school board approves the budget, but will continue transparency discussions to change the level of detail available

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Aurora school board members on Tuesday unanimously approved next school year’s $746.8 million budget after months of heated discussions over whether the district had provided the public enough detail about it.

The budget represents a 4.7 percent drop from the current year, because of declines in enrollment and thus state dollars. It does include money for salary increases, but it was Aurora’s transparency, or lack of it, that has generated the most controversy.

But just because the budget was approved doesn’t mean the transparency discussion has ended.

New board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero — the first to press for more information after district officials said they planned on raising student athletic fees — said Tuesday she will keep asking the district for more detailed budget documents.

“I understand the necessity to approve the budget on time,” Armstrong-Romero said. But, she said, she’s back to the drawing board to see how to go about making more requests.

Brett Johnson, Aurora’s chief financial officer, said releasing more detail would be better, but said his department didn’t have the capacity to change what it provides quickly.

“We want to make a budget book that is more user friendly,” Johnson told the board. But he added, “there would be a lot of upfront costs associated with rebuilding and rethinking the style of this budget.”

As an example, he said, the Cherry Creek district has double the budget staff that Aurora does, including one full-time employee that collects numbers from schools.

After November’s election, Aurora’s new board majority began to insist on more budget detail – in contrast with the previous board, which sought budget overviews.

Aurora Public Schools has had four budget directors in four years, including Johnson who started 15 months ago. The finance department has struggled to maintain consistency.

In recent years, board members had prioritized accesible information that could easily make sense to anyone. Officials pointed to the creation of a two-page budget summary for the first time last year, and the launch last summer of an interactive website that breaks down budget allocations.

Armstrong-Romero said she wanted more detail to understand where next year’s budget was different from the current year’s budget or previous years’ budgets. She asked for comparable line-item documents, and explanations of what made up big buckets of spending.

Specifically, she asked for numbers to understand the tradeoffs of not making certain budget cuts.

Superintendent Rico Munn told the board that he could not ask staff to create multiple proposed budgets just to detail all the various scenarios.

Board members talked about other district’s budgets. Denver Public Schools, for example, launched a new budget book earlier this year that includes a breakdown of where every dollar allocated per student gets spent.

“For me, it’s inconceivable that our community does not merit the same level of transparency,” Armstrong-Romero said.

Munn said that there are differences in communities, but disputed the thought that different information meant less transparency.

“Our community certainly deserves transparency, but that looks different ways in different communities,” Munn said. “It may be fair to say we haven’t struck the right tone or that there’s room to improve, which we’ve already indicated, but clearly we are not trying to hide anything.”

Some board members said that they didn’t need details down to how much was spent on each pencil at each school, but board member Kevin Cox said the conversation doesn’t have to be about one or the other, and suggested both a detailed book, and overview summaries should be available for the public.

Aurora is already searching for software to automate its budget and to skip manual data entry.

Johnson said that currently three people enter 30,000 pieces of data. “We are hoping to automate that with a better system,” he said.

Jonathan Travers, a partner at the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Education Resource Strategies, suggested districts can provide budget detail in many ways. One way is to focus on the strategy behind financial decisions.

He said “hundreds of pages of detail on accounting… is far less helpful than a few pages” on the ways in which the district allocates resources.

Board members also talked earlier this month about doing an audit, or hiring a consultant to help rethink the budget.

Colorado already requires outside audits of school district spending. Those audit reports look at many aspects of finance procedures, and are made public, but they lag because they focus on the actual dollar amounts after they’ve been spent.

Budgets, however, aren’t required to be audited because they are only proposed plan for where to allocate money.

At a budget hearing, one teacher said he supported Armstrong-Romero’s request for more budget information to help the board make decisions, and reminded the four new board members that they ran on a platform of transparency.