Charlotte Knepper is in her ninth year of teaching. In addition to being in the classroom, she's driven for Lyft and takes coding classes on the weekends, spending her weeknights practicing. "That’s my backup plan to get out of teaching," Knepper says.
She still enjoys coming to work at South High School every day. But Knepper, who lives in a condo her parents helped pay for, says she can't afford to live in Denver on a teacher's salary. So she bolsters her pay with odd jobs to make ends meet.
As the cost of living in Denver increases, and as Denver Public Schools' annual bonuses and incentives have become increasingly difficult to predict, frustration among teachers has reached a crescendo. Their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, has been bargaining with the district since November 2017 to come up with a solution.
The bargaining is entering a critical stage starting today, January 8, when the two sides will begin marathon negotiations that they have agreed must end on January 18. If the union and the district are not able to come up with a solution by that date, teachers could decide to strike for the first time since 1994.
The main issue between the district and the union began in 2004, when both sides agreed to a new bonus and incentive system called ProComp. At the time, ProComp seemed like a groundbreaking way to compensate educators.
The money for ProComp, around $33 million annually, comes from a property tax that Denver voters approved in 2005. It does not make up a teacher's whole salary. Instead, it pays for bonuses, incentives and a small portion of base salaries, which are determined by a teacher's education level and experience. The system is also meant to recruit and retain teachers who work at schools with large numbers of students living in poverty with certain incentives; pays out bonuses if a school performs highly; and reimburses teachers' student loans up to $4,000. ProComp also compensates educators who are in high demand, like high school math teachers and speech pathologists.
Districts across Colorado have struggled to fund K-12 education for decades, especially since 1992, when the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights came into play. TABOR limits how much taxes can increase yearly and, combined with the Gallagher Amendment, which tweaks how residential property taxes are assessed, has led to less revenue for districts.
Teacher pay in Colorado is now among the lowest in the U.S., and West Virginia, Mississippi, South Dakota and Oklahoma, the only four states ranked below it, all have lower costs of living, according to the Colorado Children's Campaign.
Districts often have to get creative with how they raise cash, leading some to the ballot box to ask voters for mill levy increases, such as the one that pays into ProComp.
Three years after DPS adopted the system, then-superintendent Michael Bennet agreed with the union on a new ProComp plan that involved more lucrative bonuses after the district determined it was collecting more tax revenue than it was giving out in bonuses. But spending too much of the reserve funds and exploding student growth led the district to overspend ProComp money in the years following that decision, according to Mark Ferrandino, chief financial officer for Denver Public Schools.
To make up for the overspending, the district decreased bonus amounts and incentives starting in the 2015-’16 academic year. For example, the bonus teachers get for working at a top-performing, high-growth school dropped from $4,000 two years ago to $2,400 last year and to $1,000 this year.
"Who qualifies for them changes, and the amounts change. It makes it really hard for teachers to plan for their futures," argues Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the teachers' union. (Ferrandino says the decision to decrease the bonuses wasn't made solely by the district, but in collaboration with the union.)
Most districts in Colorado offer straightforward and predictable salary schedules. Teacher pay increases with yearly positive evaluations or as teachers advance in their education. But DPS teachers start out with a lower base salary and rely on ProComp's fluctuating bonus and incentive system to bolster their pay.
To make their salaries more predictable, teachers are asking the district to decrease their bonuses and siphon the savings into base salaries.
"Can you imagine brand-new teachers coming in and trying to maximize their salaries? Teachers miss out a great deal. It's very complicated. Our proposal is to simplify the system so teachers understand their pay," says Henry Roman, president of the teachers' union.
Kurt Scheumann, an English teacher at South High School, brought in $47,401 in 2015. But his take-home pay has fluctuated in the years since, based on the school's performance. In 2016 it dropped to $46,649, and in 2017 it was $45,670.
"I have no idea what my annual salary is this year. It makes it hard to be able to plan for the future," he says.
Scheumann argues against basing his bonuses on his school's performance. "It's really frustrating, because we serve a population that is brand-new in the country, speaks little English and are then expected to perform at the same rate as peers that live in Wash Park on the SAT in one or two years. That's ridiculous."
The district acknowledges that ProComp is not perfect. It's agreed with the union to stop tying school performance to bonuses and plans to make the base-salary schedule more transparent.
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"The current ProComp system has problems that need to be fixed. The lack of transparency and unpredictably around pay all cause problems," says Ferrandino. But the district points to a higher retention rate as a sign that not all educators are dissatisfied. DPS retained 86 percent of its teachers going into the 2018-’19 school year, which is up from 85 percent the previous year and 84 percent the year before that.
The district has also agreed to earmark $11 million for teachers' base salaries, which district staff point out would add to the $45 million earmarked in the 2017 budget as part of base salary negotiations that year, and raise starting salaries for teachers with bachelor's degrees from $41,689 to $44,000. That would make Denver's the second-highest base teacher salary in all of Colorado, after only Boulder.
Rob Gould, the union's head negotiator, is glad that higher starting salaries will be increased, but wants to also see salaries grow to higher levels throughout the salary schedule as educators advance in their careers. "Yes, we should have the highest starting salary. And we need to make sure to continue to have higher salaries throughout teachers' careers."
Both sides must work through some $14 million in differences before January 18. If not, classrooms could be empty for as long as it takes. "Unfortunately, we’re at the point where if the district doesn’t make significant movement, we’re not gonna have a deal," Gould says. "And nobody wants a strike."