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District accountability committee members divided on teacher wage boost

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By Sal Christ

Jeffco Public Schools’ plan to put up to $25 million in its budget next year for employee compensation boosts has drawn ire from three District Accountability Committee members, who believe the school district is being financially irresponsible.

However, the majority of the committee supports the proposal, DAC chair Deb Guiducci told the school board March 23.

The three dissenters recommended that the school district reject the proposed pay increase and the budget cuts that have resulted to fund it. The dissenting opinion — a three-page letter submitted to the school board signed by committee members Cindy Walker, Lisa Papke and Tom Coyne — suggests that the district has failed to buttress its claims that increasing teacher pay is the only way “to attract and retain effective educators.”

The district will formalize compensation allocations after it finalizes its budget later this spring, following the close of the state legislative session when it will have a better idea of state funding.

Dissenters’ arguments

“Jefferson County Schools has over a billion dollar annual budget,” Walker said. “Approximately 80 percent of that budget is employee-related expense. The district went to the voters for additional funds in November and was clearly told at the voting booth that the district’s game plan was not what the taxpayers were willing to pay for.

“Yet, the school board has continued on their path and directed staff to find $25 million in cuts at the student and school levels to fund a salary increase for teachers without providing any justification.”

From Walker’s perspective, the district’s hasn’t provided enough evidence that turnover among teachers in the district is tied to poor compensation.

The letter to the school board stated the district failed to compare Jeffco teacher turnover rates with data from the National Center for Education Statistics, failed to “present evidence on the number of teachers who return within three years of leaving Jeffco” and failed to analyze why teachers leave Jeffco for other school districts.

Furthermore, the letter suggests that budget cuts stemming from the district’s proposed pay raises will negatively affect student achievement — much in the same way teacher absences and “poor school leadership” that leads to turnover also affect student achievement.

While those dissenting don’t think wage increases are undeserved, they believe compensation increases should correlate with non-test-based performance measures rather than across-the-board raises.

“Do I believe certain teachers and school teams should get increases? Yes, but that’s not what’s being recommended,” Coyne said. “Having been a school accountability chair and been involved in K-12 performance for 12 years, I have more of a problem with tying performance-based pay to test results. When you see a high-performing school, it’s not tied to one or two people, it’s a team effort.”

Coyne also criticized the district’s treatment of the proposed, across-the-board wage increase as an incentive, calling it financially irresponsible.

“If you had a billion-dollar company in the private sector with the governance issues that Jeffco has, it would go bankrupt,” he said.

For Papke, the issue lies in her perception that the district has focused too heavily on base pay for teachers and employees.

“If you’re going to talk about compensation and say that teachers are paid poorly, you have to consider that they only work two-thirds of the year, and after 30 years, they start collecting a pension,” Papke said. “I have friends in the system that get pay bumps for education that’s not related to their job and I have to wonder why. When the teachers say they’re not getting paid well, we need to look at the whole compensation package and not just base pay.”

Compensation concerns ongoing, reasons contradictory

For nearly a year, Jeffco has pursued avenues to increase employee compensation on grounds that district salaries aren’t competitive enough with neighboring districts.

Last summer, the school district campaigned for a multi-million bond and mill-levy package that included a built-in $12.6 million compensation increase for district employees. After voters rejected the measures in November, district officials said budget cuts would be necessary to meet a compensation challenge presented by then-Superintendent Dan McMinimee, who said the district needed to spend $20 million to $25 million more on compensation to be competitive and deliver quality education.

Chief Human Resources Officer Amy Weber concurred with McMinimee’s plea but said at the Dec. 15 school board meeting that $12 million to $15 million was needed for compensation boosts to avoid significant turnover at the end of the 2016-17 year.

As a result, the school board considered closing five elementary schools, cutting staff positions that many felt were essential to student learning and cutting gifted-and-talented resources. Ultimately one school will close, some district fees are increasing and some staff positions will be eliminated.

However, Jeffco has also contradicted itself in its justification for pursuing employee compensation increases. Despite previous statements about turnover correlating with compensation, Weber said at the Feb. 16 board meeting that further research proved otherwise, and she didn’t feel “flight risk” is a systemic issue within the district.

“Because of the structure of how other districts do their work, it’s hard for people with significant years of experience to move and make more,” said Weber. “Littleton and Cherry Creek cap pay for years of experience at five and six years, and Denver and Northglenn cap at 10. … While there are pockets of places where people can leave, I do not believe it’s a systemic issue that we can solve through compensation decisions.”

Contact reporter Sal Christ at sal@evergreenco.com or at 303-350-1035.