Facing grave budget cuts, APS teacher raises still in motion

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AURORA | In the midst of a rapid recession and anticipated blows to school funding, teachers in Aurora Public Schools could still get raises next year.

Aurora teacher union and school district officials say they are pressing on with a long-anticipated overhaul of teachers’ salary schedule despite grim fiscal realities threatening school funding. The pay plan sets parameters for teacher pay based on years of experience and academic degrees.

It’s a plan with roots in a voter-approved 2018 tax increase. Teachers and district leadership then hammered out the proposal until it was unveiled in February — before the pandemic upended education and threatened funding statewide.

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 still-controversial program the union opposed last year.

Still, Aurora Education Association President Bruce Wilcox supports the overall proposal.

He told the Sentinel Saturday the plan will move forward to face two hurdles: an OK from the union’s rank-and-file members, and another approval from the district school board.

District Chief Financial Officer Brett Johnson confirmed the plan is still in the works Monday.

But the plan will move forward in a new reality for education. The novel coronavirus has shuttered all APS schools and is expected to cut deep into state government education funding, which is already a scarce commodity for Colorado schools in part because the Great Recession gouged out state coffers more than a decade ago, Johnson said.

That chunk of school funding is APS’ largest, making up almost $285 million of the district’s nearly $428 million budget this year.

Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Denver-based Colorado School Finance Project, said the state legislature now faces a budget shortfall to the tune of up to $4 billion. She expects big cuts to school funding.

Rainey did not speak specifically to APS’ budget situation. But she affirmed districts should brace for up to 20 percent cuts to the state government portions of their funding, unless federal emergency funding or an emergency tax softens the blow.

Johnson said it’s too soon to say exactly how APS’ coffers will be impacted by the pandemic. But he said the salary overhaul was a priority for the district before, and during, the virus changed the way schools operate.

Both he and Wilcox cautioned the plan still has to clear union and school board approval.

Those may pose hurdles for the plan. The hard-to-staff stipends in particular remain a political challenge in the district.

Troy Valentine, an eighth-grade literacy teacher at Mracheck Middle School, called the overhaul a “terrible proposal” because of the stipends.

Under the original plan, 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.

Valentine, a former teacher in Denver Public Schools, compared the scheme to programs instituted in that district to reward some teachers for work in schools educating impoverished and struggling students. Denver educators ultimately went on strike to dismantle the bonus pay measures last year.

“I don’t think this solved the problem at all,” Valentine said of teacher retention and APS’ bonus proposal. “If you’re worried about finding a math teacher, some schools are struggling with finding all teachers.”

He would prefer a proposal with the stipends stripped out.

The teacher union is expected to take up the the issue in the coming weeks. At the same time, the state legislature and APS will be establishing their budgets for the coming school years. Rainey said hard choices will be in order.