Denver teachers listen to district and union negotiators at one of the public bargaining sessions in December.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Eleven days.

That’s how long Denver teachers and district leaders have to reach an agreement over incentives and teacher pay. If not, teachers may vote to strike. Both sides have been at the negotiation table for more than a year.  

Thirteen years ago, voters established a system for teacher pay and incentives. The incentives — which total about a tenth of educator compensation — are based on a formula and vary year to year. Teachers want more than higher salaries, they want to simplify the incentives. The worry is that the structure is too complex and they don’t work as advertised.

“Every year we hire five to 10 new teachers with no teaching experience,” Jess Schneider from the Noel Community Arts School told a large crowd in northeast Denver, one of several community “strike” meetings staged across the district in December. “The incentives used to attract and retain teachers are not working.”

Despite the district’s incentives, Schneider said her school wasn’t able to attract a needed physics and math teacher. She also pointed out that teachers don’t want to rely on incentives they could lose at any moment because of a change in a school’s performance score or any other factors outside of a teacher’s control.

When DPS changes the way it measures school performance, teachers are left unsure of which bonuses they receive. For South High School teacher Kurt Scheumann, there is “no real way to figure out what you're going to be making from one year to the next.”

He said he saw a thousand dollars cut from his paycheck three years in a row. Was it because more teachers qualified for the bonus, which made his slice of the pie shrink?

Teachers want the bonus to be a simple, set number — not a formula. Negotiators want to make a teacher’s overall compensation less reliant on the incentives. If teachers have a higher base salary, they could afford to live in the cities they teach in. That’s a big concern as the cost of houses and raising a family continues to climb in Denver.

“I'm a 30-year-old man,” Scheumann said. “I would like to get married and buy a home and have children. As long as Denver Public Schools continues to compensate their teachers the way that they do, that's just not really an option to teach there for my future.”

Teachers in Colorado rank last in the nation for wage competitiveness compared to other professionals with similar education. Salaries for Denver teachers lag that of nearby districts, according to Colorado Department of Education figures. More than 30 percent of Denver teachers are within their first three years of teaching, meaning they are early career.

Denver Public Schools CFO Mark Ferrandino, however, said that “when you factor in what the averages are that people are actually receiving” the overall compensation with bonuses is competitive.

Teacher Paula Aranda signs up to be a strike captain at her school. Union leaders say if an agreement isn’t reached by Jan. 18, teachers will vote on whether to strike.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

The district said its own research shows incentives have helped retain teachers in high needs school — an 86 percent retention rate. New DPS superintendent Susana Cordova is convinced, through her own district teaching experience, that in high poverty schools incentive pay is important.

State figures, however, which include charter school teachers, paint a different picture. At over 20 percent, Denver has one of highest turnover rates among Front Range districts.

Beyond the argument over bonuses, the union’s proposal seeks more money to increase teacher pay. Both sides are millions apart on how much, and where they’ll find it. Superintendent Cordova said the voters’ rejection of a statewide school funding ballot measure in November will make it hard to give teachers want they want.

“My wish, my goal would be able to pay all of our teachers significantly more,” Cordova said.

DPS had a proposal to increase pay if Amendment 73 had passed. Since voters balked, they offered a smaller package. Cordova acknowledges it will be a challenge until the state finally finds a budget fix that addresses education. In the meantime, she wants “a ‘both/and’ solution,” where they can put some more money into salaries and the incentives.

But is it enough to give teachers peace of mind in a city that’s unaffordable? Denver Green School teacher Paula Zendel said every teacher she knows is looking at the job boards.

“We love our jobs, we love our students,” she said. “We don't want to leave them, but we have to do that because we can't earn enough money to live in Denver, Colorado right now.”

Other districts are attractive because salaries are higher in nearby Aurora and Littleton. Both also have a lower cost of living. Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, believes the district just needs to check their piggy bank.

“They are definitely able to pay, but right now they're not willing to pay, so they need to re-prioritize their budget to close that gap between their proposal and our proposal.”

The state legislature gave DPS more money in the last budget and Roman questions where it was spent. Budget documents show half went to district staff compensation, including teachers, and half went to legally required money for charter schools. Ron Cabrera, who was interim superintendent before Cordova’s appointment, said the district may be able to find efficiencies elsewhere – though some may not be popular.

The district confirmed one idea under consideration is standardizing bell schedules between Denver’s wide diversity of school types to save millions in transportation costs.

“That’s a change of practice and not everyone will be happy about that, but at the end of day, the investment into teachers will help,” he said.

The teachers union has threatened a strike vote if an agreement isn’t reached by Jan. 18, 2019. Under the district’s proposal, new teachers would start at $45,000, an 8 percent increase. DPS said its proposal provides a large salary bump after an educator has provided 15 years of service in their classrooms. The union wants to see teachers with 20 years’ experience with positive evaluations making more.

While big differences remain on the salary schedule itself, district leaders agree the teacher pay system needs to be simplified and more transparent.