Luke Hadden comes from a family of teachers. He believes educators have the power to better children’s lives. That’s why leaving his job as a social studies teacher at Rock Canyon High School, ending six years with the Douglas County School District, robs him of sleep.
“It was hard. Still to this day,” he said. “It’s been about a month since I’ve been out of the classroom and I still lay awake at night wondering how my students are doing. How my colleagues are doing. I have guilt, that I left.”
Hadden, a Denver resident, said financial constraints forced him out of the profession. Annual raises didn’t keep pace with Colorado’s cost of living and his family’s monthly bills. He tried making five- and 10-year plans but couldn’t see how the district’s compensation would help him grow financially.
“It could take me 20 years and I’d still be in the same general income bracket, so that led to some frustrations,” he said.
Eventually, Hadden, 37, felt he could not support his family of four. His two daughters were missing out on opportunities, he said. Summer camp. Visiting family out of state. Saving for college.
Finally, he left. Hadden now works for a Denver company helping adults get a debt-free college education. He declined to share the difference in salary but said he would not have left the school he loved if it weren’t significant.
“Kids that I felt relied on me, I feel like I’ve left them, and it stinks,” he said. “It doesn’t feel good, but my No. 1 priority is my family.”
Hadden’s departure is precisely the scenario district officials hope to prevent in the future.
The board has taken steps to be more competitive in teacher pay throughout recent months and years. About $60 million has been added to total compensation in the district since 2017. In 2018, the district campaigned for and successfully passed a $40 million mill levy override, garnering $14 million for salary raises and $3 million for benefits.
MORE: Who got what from the mill levy
Many employees received raises last year, and the district’s average teacher pay rose from $53,080 in the 2017-18 school year to $56,082 in the 2018-19 school year.
Still, district leaders say pay isn’t competitive enough among neighboring districts.
Among nearby school districts, average teacher pay was $74,171 in the Cherry Creek School District, $69,384 in Littleton Public Schools and $59,314 in Jefferson County Public Schools for the 2018-19 school year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
A plan to overhaul Douglas County’s compensation for licensed staff, more than 4,500 people, is underway but proving difficult. Licensed staff includes teachers and employees such as nurses and counselors.
During the Feb. 4 school board meeting, district staff rolled out a draft compensation schedule for board members to analyze as they weigh implementing a step-and-lane salary structure for licensed staff. The district previously used a pay-for-performance structure and then utilized flat increases for staff, but is considering switching to a more traditional structure.
What unfolded during the presentation was a discussion that left directors visibly frustrated with administrations of the past and some spectators skeptical of the district’s ability to grow more competitive in the market.
That’s partly because staff members are not sure how to fund the sample plan they drafted. Directors could come back later and adopt the sample schedule, or go another route entirely in their efforts to boost compensation.
The draft schedule would take $6.8 million to fully implement in year one, but the district has only $2.1 million in available revenue for compensation, at the most, according to a presentation from Chief Financial Officer Scott Smith.
The district expects a $10.2 million increase in per-pupil revenue for 2020-21. Of that, about $4.8 million will go to neighborhood schools, $600,000 to mill levy share with charter schools, $1.1 million for special education staffing and $1.6 million for an employer-share in PERA rate increases. The district will also spend additional revenue on raises next year. The remainder, slightly more than $2.1 million, could be used for compensation.
School board President David Ray was quick to express his frustration.
“I wish I could have a happy face about this, because I’m really struggling just from the get-go that we have $2.1 million, maybe, best-case scenario, of additional revenue to apply to this issue,” Ray said. “So, where do we get the money, Mr. Smith?”
The available revenue came under scrutiny from some board members and teachers’ union leadership, who doubted more couldn’t be found in the district’s budget for compensation.
School board Director Anthony Graziano asked if the district could find more money for teacher pay through non-traditional revenue sources or elsewhere in the operation.
“Are we running the district optimally from all different areas from an operational side of things, building side of things, maintenance side of things?” he said. “I think there’s other areas that we could explore and look at revenue and funding.”
Directors Susan Meek and Elizabeth Hanson asked if cuts could be made anywhere in the district.
Smith said it would be difficult to pull from other places in the operation and find sustainable budgetary support for the plan, adding he doesn’t believe the district has overpaid teachers.
“Cutting your way out of it isn’t going to fix it,” Smith said.
Staff will not recommend cutting any teachers’ pay, Smith said, and it’s possible the state Legislature will produce bills that could aid school funding. He added the governor’s budget provides an increase to school funding, although it is the smallest increase in several years, and it is not yet finalized.
After hearing the budget overview, some directors criticized past boards for initiatives they said placed the district in the position it’s in today.
“I’ve heard it multiple times tonight, this did not happen just last year. This is a problem that has been created by individuals who sat up here years ago and we’re trying to unravel that problem,” Meek said. “It’s actually what happens when you launch reckless experiments with people’s lives and livelihoods.”
The draft schedule aims to be easily comparable to other districts and predictable for employees, Smith said. It focuses on increasing pay for new hires by raising their starting salary to $42,000.
“Our current starting salary of $39,000 is not competitive,” Smith said. “We know that other districts are higher than $42,000, but this is that step in the right direction.”
Hadden recalled knocking on doors to help the district pass its bond and mill levy override in November 2018. He was pleasantly surprised to find strong support for local teachers among residents he met, he said, as they expressed how teachers impacted their children.
That left him all the more disheartened as he watched numerous teachers leave for higher-paying jobs in other districts, often in the Cherry Creek School District, he said.
“Who could begrudge a teacher for taking a teaching job a couple miles away for $10K-$15K difference in salary?” he said.
Under the draft schedule, Douglas County licensed staff would receive a 2.5% step increase, for years with the district, and a 3.5% lane increase for furthering their education. New hires with a bachelor’s degree would earn $42,000, while a doctorate holder at step 25 would earn $100,033.
Numerous factors beyond years of experience determine if an employee progresses in steps on a schedule.
Various positions would be eligible for annual stipends. There would be a $3,000 yearly stipend for hard-to-fill positions and a $6,000 stipend for special service providers or specialists, in two examples.
There are other hurdles to implementing the draft schedule, Smith said.
More than 1,400 teachers are making less than what they should be if the draft schedule is adopted. Some are less than $1 from their proposed pay while others are more than $20,000 off. The average increase to bring them in sync is $3,700.
Roughly 2,200 teachers are making more than what the draft schedule proposes they should. Smith said determining how to address those positions would be tricky and discussed one option — directors could freeze those employees’ salaries, while those making less than they should receive cost-of-living increases.
Smith urged directors to place all new hires on whatever schedule they adopt and to also bring recent hires to the same base salary, so current employees aren’t paid less than those coming in.
“This took nearly a decade to get here. There is not going to be a solution on July 1 that addresses everything that everyone wants instantaneously,” Smith said. “We also want to make sure whatever we implement is affordable and sustainable. If we put in a salary schedule and immediately turn around the next year and freeze salaries, that kind of defeats the purpose.”
School board Director Christina Ciancio-Schor questioned if the district’s employee council, which is helping draft the schedule, was fully representative of the teaching community, a sentiment echoed by Kallie Leyba, president of the teachers’ union, the Douglas County Federation. The council has representatives from 20 schools. There are 50 additional district-run schools.
“This is going to take a full effort from everyone in this room reaching out to our community members, reaching out to our union groups as well,” Superintendent Thomas Tucker said.
Michelle Fleet, a member of the teachers’ union, is an English teacher at Douglas County High School who’s been with the district for 26 years. She commended the draft schedule for addressing new hires but said it offered little competitive benefit for teachers who have been with the district for several years. She believes that would generate turnover.
“It’s not going to retain teachers when they pull up any surrounding district,” she said.
The school board in September celebrated improvement in retention among employees. The district, which calculates turnover differently from the state, found that licensed employee turnover has decreased in Douglas County every year since the 2015-16 school year.
Tucker said at the time the district still planned to improve compensation to become more competitive and aimed to address still-high turnover rates among classified employees. The district plans to address classified employee pay as well at a later date, directors and Smith said Feb. 4.
In mulling over the draft schedule presented Feb. 4, Fleet dug up her salary schedule from 2008 and 2009 as a comparison. What she found shocked her, she said.
A teacher at the level she was then — a 15-year veteran with a master’s degree plus 48 credit hours — would make $1,200 less on the draft schedule discussed Feb. 4 than they would 10 years ago.
“Are we really being competitive? Is this really fair?” Fleet said.
Leyba — whose union does not have a collective bargaining agreement with the district — said the presentation left her with “disappointment and frustration.” It lacked details about the budget, she said, and generated more questions than answers. Smith cautioned the Feb. 4 meeting was early to be discussing the budget and numbers in the presentation will change.
Leyba suggested the district tap its reserves to boost teacher pay or reprioritize the budget to focus on compensation.
Both she and Fleet believe the board supports teachers but said if the district wants to attract and retain top teachers, it will take a more compelling schedule than the one presented Feb. 4.
Chief Human Resources Officer Amanda Thompson said the next steps are for staff to continue meeting with the district’s employee council to work on compensation. Staff could propose an official step-and-lane model option on April 7. The board plans to approve raises and a salary structure on May 1.
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