$7 million APS teacher salary boosts seen as a way to stem turnover

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Bruce Wilcox, left, and Damon Smith discuss the development of the new APS salary schedule, Feb. 3, 2020, in the offices of the APS Communications Department.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | With four kids and a job at Hinkley High School, first-year teacher D’Aaron Stewart is already planning on leaving Aurora because of the high cost of metro-area living.

Stewart came to teaching looking for a career change after almost a decade in the Army. He received a bachelor of arts degree with majors in history and education.

Now a geography teacher at Hinkley in the Aurora Public Schools district, Stewart said he loves teaching but doesn’t think he’ll be able to afford a future in Aurora. According to the district salary schedule, Stewart pulls in about $43,470 before taxes each year.

He used to drive Lyft to make ends meet, but recently he started substitute teaching classes at Hinkley on his lunch breaks for some extra cash.

“We’re just kind of realizing, if I put in 30 years here, I won’t be able to retire in Colorado,” he said of his family.

But Stewart, a new teacher, could soon see significant pay bumps under a sweeping overhaul of the teacher and staff pay system proposed in APS.

District officials, employees and the Aurora Education Association union members helped develop the plan, which was  presented to the APS school board Tuesday night. If approved, the proposal would be the first major change to the district’s so-called salary schedule in about half a century, officials said.

In the plan, the district would invest about $7 million more into teacher salaries each year for the foreseeable future. More funding for salaries could be a win for the teacher union, whose members have long decried low teacher pay amid surging housing costs in Aurora and the Denver metro.

Young and moderately-experienced teachers would benefit the most with raises if the plan is approved. But the proposal would also devote up to $3 million annually for big stipends for staff occupying positions plagued by high turnover, a program the AEA opposed last year.

Still, Aurora Education Association President Bruce Wilcox supports the overall proposal and thinks more money funneled to teachers could buttress a teacher shortage problem.

“We want to make sure people come to us,” Wilcox said.

The teacher salary overhaul would move salary growth currently benefiting late-career teachers into the pockets of newer teachers, who have been most likely to leave the district for other jobs.

A fifth-year teacher with a master’s degree, for example, would earn about $3,400 more annually. Young and moderately-experienced teachers would earn more than other metro-area school districts, including nearby Cherry Creek schools for a few years.

All 2,400 of employees defined as teachers — mental health staff, service providers and classroom teachers — would be affected.

About 20 percent of district teachers have more than 16 years of experience working in the district. Some of these veteran teachers would lose wage growth under this plan, but its authors would also allow teachers to stick with the current system if they would lose money over a decade.

Wilcox said Tuesday teachers will have access to an online tool to calculate whether the proposal would benefit them.

The salary overhaul project was born out of an understanding that APS teachers — especially young teachers — struggle to live and work in Aurora because of the high costs of living.

“More often than not, it’s those shifts in the state of the local economy that might be driving people out of teaching and/or seeking opportunities outside of Aurora or outside of metro Denver all together,” said Damon Smith, the district’s Chief Personnel Officer.

APS had the highest teacher turnover rate of the major Denver metro school districts last year, according to state officials.

About 21.5 percent of teacher positions changed hands last year, according to the most recent CDE data. That was compared with almost 21 percent in Denver, about 17 percent in Adams 12, 14 percent in Jefferson County and 9 percent in Cherry Creek.

Wilcox said financial situations put stress on teachers and play a part in the turnover challenge.

“I don’t feel like I live very comfortably, it is mainly paycheck to paycheck,” said Emma Simpleman, a teacher at Iowa Elementary School. Simpleman is now in her third year of teaching in APS. She said she pulls in an annual salary of $46,000 before taxes.

“I definitely don’t have any savings,” she said. Simpleman said she hasn’t seen the revised salary schedule and did not offer an opinion.

Without the new salary schedule, Simpleman would make $47,500 next year. With the changes, her salary would be boosted to $49,180, and up to $61,280 if she obtained her master’s degree in three years, which she is working on.

As part of the district’s effort to remedy high teacher turnover, APS debuted a pilot program last year offering stipends to staff filling positions that often change hands, but also speech language pathologists, therapists, school psychologists and nurses working in the district and its schools. These employees were eligible for stipends from $2,500-$3,000.

Teacher unions, including the AEA, have taken issue with the concept of paying teachers more for filling certain positions instead of offering all teachers in district schools more money in their pockets.

But a similar program will account for between $2.5 to $3 million of teacher salary from here on out if it is approved by the school board.

About 500 district employees could see a one-time, $5,000 stipend each year for filling middle school and high school science and math positions, which have seen teacher shortages. Mental health, social workers and speech language pathologists would also be eligible for the funds.

Smith told the school board Tuesday there’s not conclusive evidence whether stipends can spur the kind of teacher retention rates the district needs. Effectiveness of the plan would be evaluated after three years.

The salary and stipend proposal is far from being a done deal.

“There’s gonna be some pushback from people about paying stipends for positions for hard-to-staff,” Wilcox said. “We know that. To what extent — I can’t say.”

The union will vote on the entire proposal, as will the school board, and district and union bargaining teams will have to hammer out an agreement this year.

“This is a phenomenal step forward,” said Marques Ivey, a school board member. Ivey supports the plan and thinks other members do as well.

“The increase in pay is good, but we also know the increase in pay is not nearly enough,” he said, calling for more teacher salary funding from the state legislature.

Stewart, the Hinkley teacher, said the teacher pay overhaul makes him “feel better.”

Still, Stewart said he couldn’t wait for more money promised down the road if he took on more debt for a master’s degree and works in the district for many more years.

For the time being, he said he’s pulled his membership dues from the AEA to save the cash. He’s debating whether to take on debt for a mortgage — his family is renting a home without air conditioning, because he says it is cheaper — or go back to school.

“I need the money now,” he said.