Reform of teacher pay part of tax-hike debate

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By Gabrielle Porter

Editor’s note: The Courier is publishing a series of articles examining arguments on both sides of Jeffco Public Schools’ proposed property tax increase.


Opponents of a proposed tax increase for Jeffco schools say that speeding up teacher pay reform would go a long way toward closing a budget gap that proponents hope to fill with the tax hike.

Opponents of measures 3A and 3B on the November ballot say some Jeffco teachers are highly paid simply because they have a long district tenure or hold a master’s degree. Pay should be linked to students’ academic performance, said Sheila Atwell, executive director of Jeffco Students First, a nonprofit that opposes the tax-increase proposals.

District administrators say the beginning steps of pay reform are already under way, and the process can’t be oversimplified.

“When people give really simple solutions to complex problems like teaching, it’s usually wrong,” said district Superintendent Cindy Stevenson. “They’re complex issues, and if we’re not thoughtful about it, we won’t have the best teachers in Jeffco.”

The tax measures, which will be voted on separately Nov. 6, would increase property taxes on a $250,000 home by about $126 a year. The school district is paying off a bond issued in 1992 that will equate to $90 in property-tax savings for that same household, so the net tax increase would be about $36 per year.

If approved, 3A, which supports school operations, would generate an additional $39 million. Approval of 3B would allow the district to borrow $99 million for building maintenance.

The district has cut $63 million from its operating budget over the last three years, and it chopped another $15 million from the 2012-13 budget. It will face another $43 million in cuts for 2013-14, which likely would mean eliminating 600 jobs.

Teacher evaluation and termination

Atwell said that for pay reform to be fiscally responsible, it should include stringent accountability measures: Teachers who don’t meet performance standards should be fired.

“Without accountability … it’s hard to say, ‘Let’s just keep paying more and more and more,’ ” Atwell said.

Since current pay is partially based on tenure, ineffective teachers who have been around for years may be a financial drain on the district, Atwell said. Firing underperforming teachers would lead to turnover and ensure the district is paying the most only for its most effective teachers.

Stevenson said conversations about pay for performance and about termination as a consequence of poor performance should be kept separate. Those who want to include both measures in one reform, like Atwell, are oversimplifying, she said.

“They’re mixing up compensation with dismissal,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said dismissal should be a result of an overall evaluation, not just student performance.

Atwell disagreed.

“You can’t at all separate the two things,” she said. “Of course you want to reward (teachers) that are excellent, but there has to be accountability for the ones that aren’t. … Absolutely you can’t ignore one and just concentrate on the other. … You’re really shortchanging and not doing the best you can for the students that happen to be in the class (of an ineffective teacher).”

Teacher pay studies

The district currently has two separate but related task forces tackling issues of compensation reform, Stevenson said.

The Strategic and Sustainable Change Task Force was created to bring the district into compliance with state Senate Bill 191, which was passed in 2010 and established new requirements for evaluating teachers and principals.

The task force is also responsible for making recommendations on changing teacher pay systems, and with putting collaborative decision-making plans into place so schools’ staffs are more involved and can improve professional development.

SB 191 mandates that teachers’ evaluations be based on the academic performance of districts, schools and their own classrooms, and partially based on in-class observations. The task force will examine tying salaries to those factors, and also giving higher salaries to new teachers.

Jeffco Strategic Compensation, another task force, received a $39 million grant from the federal Teacher Incentive Fund in 2010. The grant helps pay for a five-year study that measures teacher effectiveness through student performance in 20 Jeffco schools.

Jeffco teachers are currently paid on a schedule that takes into account how many years they have been teaching and what academic degrees they hold.

Stevenson hopes the study will show the district what areas it should invest in. For example, if the study finds that paying for development of special skills in teachers increases student performance, it could result in allocating more district funds to developing those skills.

“We’re looking at those variables to begin to redo those compensations, but we haven’t made any decisions yet,” Stevenson said.

Opponents cite lack of ‘real urgency’

The study will end after the 2015-16 school year, which some think is too far in the future.

“It’s a step,” Atwell said. “(But) I just don’t see any real urgency.”

Stevenson said the district might experiment with alternative district-wide pay reforms before the five-year study ends — possibly as early as the 2013-14 school year.

The task force has recommended that the district wait until it has two years of data from the study before making any changes. The study began in 2010, but the first year was devoted to planning, Stevenson said.

“They said that we have a really good pilot project in 20 of our schools,” Stevenson said. “We ought to be collecting that data for at least two years before we jump to conclusions about what we should do about everybody’s compensation.”

Stevenson said the structure of other pay reforms will largely depend on the data the district gets back after the 2012-13 school year.

Task force makeup

Members of the Jeffco Strategic Compensation task force include teachers appointed by the teachers union and administrators appointed by the district’s administrative staff, Stevenson said.

Atwell said the makeup of the task force is problematic, and members are likely to be protective of teaching jobs rather than focus on student achievement.

“The people on those committees … tend to be the ones who are most resistant to a bold plan,” Atwell said. “I wish I had higher hopes for it.”

Stevenson said the members of the task force were chosen for their educational expertise, and that they all have Jeffco students’ best interests at heart.

Contact Gabrielle Porter at gabrielle@evergreenco.comor303-350-1043.