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.”


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

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

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.


Struggling Aurora elementary must decide next steps on recommendations

Teachers at Lyn Knoll Elementary should get more than 20 minutes per day for planning, school officials should consider switching to a district-selected curriculum for literacy, and the school should find a way to survey neighborhood families who send their children to school elsewhere.

Those are some of the recommendations for improvement presented to Aurora’s school board this week by a committee overseeing the work at Lyn Knoll.

But because the school has a status that allows it more autonomy, those recommendations cannot be turned into mandates, committee members told the school board this week. Instead, school officials must now weigh these suggestions and decide which they might follow.

Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora teachers union and member of the joint steering committee, said he doesn’t expect every recommendation “to come to fruition,” but said whether or not each recommendation is followed is not what’s important.

“It really will come down to, is improvement made or not,” Wilcox said.

Rico Munn, the superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, had recommended Lyn Knoll for turnaround after the school fell to the state’s lowest quality rating last year. Enrollment at the school has also dropped. But the Aurora school board voted instead to wait another year to see if the school itself can make improvements.

Munn Thursday suggested that the board may still make part of that decision contingent on approval of the school’s action plan.

The union-led joint steering committee that wrote the recommendations offered to monitor and guide the school during the 2018-19 school year as it tries to improve, but it’s a role the group has never taken on before. Part of that role has already started with committee members visiting the school for observations.

“The purpose of the joint steering committee is to be a place the schools can go to and ask for guidance,” Wilcox said. “This is where it’s doing well.”

Lyn Knoll is one of three district-run schools in Aurora that have pilot status, which was created about 10 years ago when the district worked with its teachers union to create a path for schools to earn autonomy.

This was before Colorado passed the law that allows schools to seek innovation status, which is a state process that grants schools waivers from some state, district, and union rules as a way to try new ideas.

“At the time that pilot schools came in, our district was very lockstep,” Wilcox said. “What was done at one school was done at the other. That was the framework.”

Schools that wanted to try something different or unique could apply to the district for pilot status if they had a plan with school and community support. Each pilot school also had to create a school governing board that could include teachers and community members that would help the school make decisions.

At Lyn Knoll, one of the popular innovations involved letting students have physical education every day of the week, something not common in many schools.

Another of the district’s pilot schools, William Smith High School, uses its status to lead a school unlike any other in the district, with a project-based learning model where students learn standards from different subjects through real-life scenarios and projects.

The Aurora district, like many districts around the country, now has created more ways beyond pilot status for principals to make specific changes at their school.

In Aurora, Munn said the current structure of the district, which now has “learning communities,” is meant to be responsive to the differences between groups of schools.

“We’re really trying to strongly connect different parts of the district and be flexible and there are different ways of doing that,” Munn said.

Schools can come to the district and request permission to use a different curriculum, for instance, or to change their school calendar so students can be released early on certain days for teacher planning time. There’s also a district application process so that schools that need specific help or resources from the district can request them. And more recently, schools that want several, structured, waivers are more likely to apply for the state’s innovation status, which provides “a stronger framework,” Munn said.

The district said current pilot school principals could not speak about their school model for this story.

Lyn Knoll currently has no principal for next year. Officials at Thursday’s board meeting suggested waiting until a new principal is identified or hired so that person could work with the school’s governing board on a plan for change. It was unclear how soon that might happen, although finalists are being scheduled for interviews next week.

Clarification: The story has been updated to reflect that the need for a principal at Lyn Knoll is for next year.