The teachers union, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), proposes a clear payscale for everyone based on years of service and opportunities to increase pay through college credits or in-house Professional Development Units. Denver Public Schools is committed to setting aside some of the funds for salaries to pay incentives and retention bonuses at hard-to-serve schools. As this issue of the Front Porch is going to press, the two sides have agreed to resume discussions and are awaiting an answer whether the state will intervene to try to bring the two sides together to avert a strike.
DPS’s pay structure, ProComp, which offers incentives and bonuses in areas of particular concern to DPS, is a fundamental area of disagreement between the two sides. ProComp was initially negotiated in 1999, says Laura Lekowits, who was a DPS Board member at that time. “We felt that if we paid teachers in a different way we could end up paying them more and paying them for things we as a district needed them to be expert in. The idea was you would no longer advance automatically on the salary scale.”
She thinks taking away that system and having everyone be equal would be going backwards. “What they should have is a higher incentive for teachers to go in hard-to-serve schools because the incentive amount is too low right now to really incentivize anybody. The community was quite supportive of the idea that teachers should be paid based on their effectiveness in the classroom—as opposed to simply being there. That approach made a lot of sense to most people I was representing at the time.”
Fast forward 19 years, and, in a union vote, 93% were in favor of a strike to get higher pay and end the ProComp system. Currently, 66% of teachers are union members, according to DCTA President Henry Roman. He told us, “…one time incentives like ProComp mask how much you’re actually making in base.” With ProComp, “…some will get nothing and some will get the amount advertised. So for us it’s an issue of equity. I want to be sure additional funding is distributed throughout the entire salary schedule, not just certain parts.”
Teachers say ProComp means they can’t plan for their future because they never know exactly what their pay will be. Besides being unpredictable, incentives are not a part of their base pay so they don’t help a teacher qualify for a mortgage, says Laurel Davis, a Bill Roberts second grade math and science teacher. She says DPS promised bonuses, then started taking them away. For example, at one time, teachers who were hired at Bill Roberts got a $7,000 bonus for working at a “distinguished” school. Davis says they were told as long as the school stays distinguished, it would be part of their salary. “Well that started to go down. The first year I was there it was $4,000. This past year it was $1,000. DPS said, ‘We’re running out of money so we can’t pay the bonuses we thought we could pay.’ People feel like they can’t rely on those incentives.”
DCTA proposes reducing the $2,500 incentive to Title I (high poverty schools) to $1,750 and has no incentives for teachers at DPS’s 30 highest priority schools—instead that money goes into base salaries for all teachers. Even with that redistribution of funds and other additional funds DPS is offering, another $8 million in the salary schedule is needed to achieve DCTA’s salary proposal.
Superintendent Susana Cordova, however, has focused on the absolute importance of ProComp “to provide both incentives and retention bonuses to teachers who work with our poorest children so we can close the achievement gap.” On the morning after the negotiations ended, she said, “…that’s a place we’re not going to budge. We think the investment in teachers who work in our high poverty schools is too important to compromise. If we tried to create a proposal that had their base salary and our incentives, it actually doubles the amount that we’re short. So it’s no longer $8 million that we’re short, it’s $16 million.”
Roman says high salaries in central office positions need to be cut and put into teacher salaries. He adds, “In the past 7 years, Central Administration has increased 95%.” Cordova has promised to reduce central office expenses by 7.5% and put that money into teachers’ pay. The results of a Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) request that were circulated on social media showed 196 people in 50 different positions in the Central Office receive salaries over $80,000. These positions include the Superintendent; Instructional Superintendents and Curriculum Coordinators; Transportation & Facility Managers; and the General Counsel, among others, with an average salary of $98,989.
Teachers who oppose the ProComp pay system say bonuses for work at hard-to-serve schools don’t make up for the increased level of work and emotional drain so it isn’t retaining teachers—and a more predictable pay scale is what would retain more teachers. Roman says 70% of the educators in Denver are probationary with just 1–3 years of service. DPS says 25% of teachers have 3 years or fewer teaching experience. DPS also points out that they had a “more than a six point increase in retention at their highest priority schools,” and the overall retention rate is 86%.
Middle school math teacher Shannon Wood Rothenberg, now at McAuliffe International School, made a mid-life career change from architecture to teaching because she wanted a more fulfilling job. She says this about her time at a Title I school from 2010 to 2013: “The workload was unbelievable. I am not afraid of hard work, so I’d work from 6am to 6pm most days, just to feel like I had a handle on things. Our staff turnover every year was devastating. We had teachers quitting midyear, simply because they couldn’t do it anymore.”
Rothenberg has been recognized as a Distinguished teacher for the past 7 years and as one of the 2018 Denver Teachers of the Year. She was not a member of DCTA until a few weeks ago, feeling the deduction of $70/month was excessive. She wrote to Cordova, “I had this unexamined belief that teachers’ unions kept underperforming teachers in the classroom and kept overachieving teachers from being rewarded appropriately. Once I educated myself about what was happening with ProComp and the steps that DPS and the DCTA were taking, I knew I had to join the union. It’s a question of solidarity, the greater good. I voted to strike and, if a strike is called, I will strike.”
On the other side, Alison Corbett, a Park Hill resident and 8-year DPS teacher in Montbello made an equally strong statement in favor of ProComp in her letter posted in Chalkbeat. “I see that change [getting rid of ProComp] as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district. But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch… face complex and often painful challenges. If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.”
Corbett has a master’s degree that qualifies her to teach concurrent enrollment classes (for which students receive both high school and college credit), a qualification the district encourages in their pay proposal. Cordova says one of the reasons DPS’ proposal does not give credit for in-house Professional Development Units (PDUs) is that they want teachers who are able to teach concurrent enrollment classes. College credits, not PDUs, are required for that.
DCTA’s proposal offers a path for pay increases through either college credits or Professional Development Units (classes within DPS) that would count like college credits to move them up the pay scale, with more frequent opportunities to increase their pay.
DPS’s request for state intervention took away the possibility of an immediate strike since that process now has to play out with responses from all parties before a strike can occur. In the meantime, the community watches and waits to see if an agreement can be reached in resumed negotiations.