After the teachers’ strike in Chicago, Jeffco residents may wonder what lies ahead for the Jeffco Public School District and the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) when it comes time to address budget cuts, the Educator Effectiveness reforms mandated by Colorado Senate Bill 191, and the changes and new assessments that will result as the district implements the new Common Core Standards.
The district and JCEA say they will take a different path focused on continuing the collaboration already in place from previous budget cuts and reform pilots.
The school district has cultivated partnerships with the community and the teachers to implement reforms and address other challenges, said Jeffco Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson.
“Change is more rapid, staff is reduced, accountability is increased, reform is accelerating,” Stevenson explained, “and no one can manage these expectations alone. That is why partnerships are more important than ever.”
JCEA Executive Director Lisa Elliott agreed. “Our partnership with the district is very simple: we share a vision of getting real results for students,” she said. “Our members chose education as a career because they care about children and their families and believe public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. They want a strong teaching profession to best realize that vision.”
Partnerships have been essential in confronting the funding challenges and budget cuts of the last four years. Stevenson said that JCEA and other employee associations were part of the 2011 and 2012 Budget Summits, which recommended a 3 percent pay reduction for all district employees. That reduction hit paychecks for the 2011-2012 school year and stayed in effect for this year.
“Our employee associations were partners in developing the budget and taking that 3 percent salary cut because we had shared values about our service to students,” she said. The budget summits involved the school board, district leadership, and three employee associations.
The teachers agreed to the budget summit rather than the traditional — and often contentious — negotiation process between the district and teachers’ union.
“We were facing the prospect of cuts,” said Don Cameron, a Jeffco teacher, “and we could either work to keep them away from the classroom and the kids, or just fight it and not be sure of the outcome.”
By agreeing to furlough days in advance, JCEA has helped create more certainty for parents and students for the school calendar, Cameron said.
Some have wondered why Jeffco and the teacher’s union didn’t work out an agreement to take those furlough days during the summer so students would not be impacted. The reason is that the teacher contract, as currently written, is for 183 days of work during the academic year, Stevenson said. Taking off time in the summer would not reduce salary expenditures.
Teachers have taken two-thirds of their workload reduction on days that students did not attend, including teacher development days to improve teaching effectiveness and days in the classroom. They have lost staff development and planning time as a result.
Teachers work a specified number of days each year and are not paid for days they are not contracted to work, such as during summer, winter and spring breaks. Compensation is spread out over 12 months to make it easier to manage monthly bills and ongoing expenses like groceries and utilities.
Jeffco, JCEA collaborate on “pay for performance”
Another area in which Jeffco and JCEA are partnering together is in addressing the reforms mandated by SB 191.
SB 191 mandates that at least half of a teacher’s evaluation be determined by an evaluation rubric that defines best practices in teaching. The other half will be based on multiple measure of student growth, which have yet to be determined by the state. Under the current timeline, pilot programs will be conducted in 2012-13, adapted statewide in 2013-14, and finalized in 2014-15.
“We are able to partner with district leadership on several fronts because we agree that reform of teacher evaluation for example, strengthens the profession and ultimately helps students succeed,” Elliot said.
Jeffco and JCEA have taken a number of steps to address these reforms together, including working with Southwest TURN, a reform-minded teacher’s group.
In addition, district officials and the union have attended workshops, sponsored two workshops and have six pilot projects running in the school district this year, Stevenson said.
Jeffco and JCEA have already spent two years studying “pay for performance” together. The work resulted in a grant application to the Teacher Incentive Fund, and Jeffco received a grant in the fall of 2010 to pilot “strategic compensation” in 20 schools.
Jeffco and JCEA are managing and evaluating this Strategic Compensation Project together as equal partners, while two separate external evaluation firms study the impact of pay, teacher support and peer evaluation on student achievement, Stevenson said.
New compensation strategies are also being studied through a partnership with JCEA and the Jefferson County Administrators Association (JCAA). That task force is basing their work on Jeffco’s Strategic Compensation Project and on models that have been studied nationally through Teacher Incentive Fund grants.
The district’s position is that “compensation is more than ‘pay for performance,’” Stevenson said. “Compensation is not simple. It meets a variety of needs. We know it should incentivize what we want in the system.”
For example, if Jeffco needs teachers with master’s degrees in a specific area so that teacher can teach and provide students “concurrent credit” with a university, the district also needs to offer salaries that reflect the additional qualifications necessary for that position.
“We also believe that adequate pay, benefits, and good teaching and learning conditions attract the right candidates into teaching in general and Jeffco in particular,” Elliot said. “That has been a challenge, especially the last few years, but we believe that the public wants great teachers, in schools with strong leadership, to create the kind of community we all want to live in.”
Jeffco and JCEA are also working together to address mandates regarding yearly evaluations and continuing contract status.
Jeffco, JCEA look to the future
Communication and shared responsibility for current reforms are areas in which the district and JCEA excel, Stevenson said. Yet, they face challenges in fostering communication with constituent groups and with new teachers about the reforms.
Another challenge concerns how to best improve student achievement with limited funds, especially when budget cuts lead to job cuts. For example, the district may prefer to cut teaching positions in order to maintain instructional coaches, while JCEA members may prefer to preserve teaching positions.
JCEA represents both classroom teachers and instructional coaches, so the decision is not a matter of protecting union members at the expense of other employees.
“Instructional coaches are also our members,” Elliott explained. “We’d prefer to leave coaches because they do some really great work,” she said, “but times of increasing class sizes some classroom teachers want instructional coaches to go back into the classroom.”
The district’s position is that instructional coaches are essential for improving student achievement, Stevenson said.
In response to criticism that unions are outdated or too focused on keeping tenure, Stevenson suggested that unions may need to redefine their purpose.
Unions should continue to protect due process for employees, but they should “also demand the highest quality performance from their members,” she said. “They need to look to the future, not the past or ‘past practice.’”
Elliot also reiterated that JCEA is looking to the future. “We are committed to realizing the public’s goals, and have tried to be a good partner in navigating these tough economic times,” she said.
“JCEA is working to become leaders with the district in educational reform and change. That needs to be their role in the future, “ Stevenson said. “Ideally, we will walk together and create a better world for our kids. As the old African proverb goes: If you want to go fast…go alone. If you want to go far….go together!“