Jefferson County schools and educators reach a deal on raises, but union says base salary is still too low

Courtesy of Jefferson County Education Association
JeffCo educators pack into the board room for the final night of bargaining with the district over compensation and other issues May 17.

Jefferson County educators will receive a 5.25 percent raise in a tentative agreement they reached with the district after a bargaining session Wednesday night that went on for nearly eight hours.

Bargaining sessions over several weeks went smoothly on some issues but became tense when it came to compensation, with both sides having very different interpretations of the district’s budget.

Other districts raised starting salaries considerably this year in response to new state money for education. Westminster’s is the highest in the state at $60,000; Cherry Creek starts at $57,000; Adams 12 Five Star district boosted starting salaries to $58,000, a $12,000 increase. Teachers in Adams 12 Five Star district earned at least a 6 percent increase.

Jefferson County’s starting salary will be $52,625.

“With the state’s investment in education, districts throughout Colorado are budgeting what they value, and we are seeing historical increases to educator pay statewide,” said Brooke Williams, an art teacher and the Jefferson County Education Association president, during last night’s session.

But district officials argued that less local tax money than surrounding districts and sharp enrollment declines limited how much the district could offer in raises. 

At a Tuesday board meeting, Superintendent Tracy Dorland acknowledged the dozens of employees who testified about overwork due to staffing shortages and employees’ struggles to pay for health care. But she said the combined compensation requests from both the educators and classified union employees are double the district's new revenues.

"We would be thrilled to provide this type of compensation increase to our employees but we also have to balance that value and interest with our available resources and our financial reality," she said.

Title I schools stipends and other wins

As part of the deal, teachers who work in Title I schools will receive an increased stipend. There will also be additional stipends for career and technical, art, music and physical education for the additional hours they spend with students.

A key win for the union was getting middle school educators additional planning time. The district has agreed to three more planning days for elementary teachers last year. The district has also agreed to a $20 per person monthly increase for medical benefits.

Williams said they had hoped to see a competitive salary in the metro area as part of the deal and that educators desperately need Jeffco to invest in its employees. 

“We are not done fighting for the competitive compensation loyal educators deserve,” she said. “We made it clear to our district that they need to reward our educators with the most experience.”

Tensions in bargaining

At the previous bargaining session May 4, the district offered a 3.5 percent raise. Teachers asked for an 8 percent pay increase, and then things went south.

“The district team walked out and we were very confused about why that happened that way.  And it was upsetting,” said Michelle Moehlis, chair of the bargaining committee for the Jefferson County Education Association and a Spanish teacher at Green Mountain High School.

At a board meeting Tuesday, district superintendent Dorland explained there are several factors that prevent the district from offering more.

One is that Jefferson County struggles to compete with surrounding districts like Boulder, Denver, Aurora and Cherry Creek, where voters have taxed themselves to the maximum amounts allowed by mill levy overrides. Those mill levies increase automatically with inflation.

Because Jefferson County voters only tax themselves 70 percent of what’s allowed, “putting us at a competitive disadvantage next year in terms of the funds we could be applying towards compensation and other investments for students and staff,” she said. JeffCo’s last mill tied to inflation was in 2018.

Extra state dollars

This spring, state lawmakers devoted another $180 million to buying down the state education debt, which means more than an additional $1,000 per student. They also allocated an additional $40 million for special education. Districts typically draw from their own general education budgets to meet federally required mandates in special education so those funds should free up more dollars.

Jefferson County got an extra $60 million from the state, amounting to more than a 10 percent increase in per-pupil funding.

Union members questioned where all the additional state dollars were going if not into salaries.

“I think it’s going to essentially mean that we’ll be putting money elsewhere in the budget, and then other districts will be putting money into salaries. As a result, every year we do that, we will get less competitive as a district,” said Rob Cassady, a member of the bargaining team and a science teacher at Standley Lake High School.

The union also argued that the district has put an ever-increasing amount of money, considerably more than other districts, into savings. In addition, JeffCo’s closing of 16 schools means ongoing savings for the district.

According to the union’s calculations, the percentage of money allocated to salaries actually declined this year, despite two years of increasing teachers’ salaries. The salary increases last year were 2.2 percent of the budget and revenue went up 3.3 percent. 

Declining enrollment has squeezed the district financially, making budget leaders forecast declining reserves in coming years.

“Spending our savings on recurring costs (salaries) sets JeffCo up for an unsustainable and unstable future,” said the district’s deputy superintendent Kym Leblanc-Esparza at Wednesday night’s bargaining session.

The district argued it gave teachers pay raises the past two years (an average of 10.5 percent last year) and it had to draw upon savings to do that. 

“Teachers appreciate that,” said Cassady. “It has made a huge difference in the lives of many, many teachers.”

Educators noted, however, that the increases of the past two years only partially dug JeffCo teachers out of a deep hole stemming back to recessionary years.

“Our kids have had a lot of change and uncertainty in the past few years, and we are trying to keep their beloved educators in this profession and in Jeffco,” said Moehlis. “We know this year our legislators made a historic investment into education, but ultimately, across this state, our students’ have been robbed of funding for over a decade. Education funding in Colorado is not sustainable, and we need a permanent fix to this broken system.”

The Jefferson County Education Association ratification vote is set for May 22-26.