Colorado

Aurora board rejects arbitration ruling

Aurora parent Karen Porter asks the Aurora School Board to reject an arbitrator's ruling that the district violated its contract with teachers while Superintendent John Barry, at right, listens.
Parent Karen Porter asks the Aurora school board to reject an arbitrator's ruling that the district violated its contract with teachers while Superintendent John Barry, at right, listens.

Aurora school board members on Tuesday rejected an arbitrator’s ruling that they violated their contract with the teachers’ union by imposing a sixth class on high school teachers without more pay.

The 5-2 vote followed nearly three hours of often emotional testimony from teachers who urged the board to accept the decision and others – principals, bus drivers, custodians – who urged it be rejected.

At stake was what district leaders said would result if the ruling were accepted, including the loss of 70 to 90 jobs to cover the $4.4 million needed to compensate high school teachers for the extra classes.

The threat of more cuts was too much for Anthony Ruiz, a 16-year bus driver who said support workers already are doing far more with much less. His own job is being downsized, from a 365-day contract to just 215 days beginning Jan. 1.

“Without custodians to open the school sites or nutrition services to feed our students or bus drivers to transport our students to their classrooms, you would not have school,” Ruiz said. “No one is challenging their commitment or their decision but I feel my job is no less important than the teachers.

“If the high school teachers are above being asked to do more, then this $4.4 million will hit us again.”

After the vote, Board President Matt Cook read a brief statement describing the rejection as “the right thing to do for the district as a whole.”

Extra class part of budget package

School board members approved the additional class in March as part of $17 million in budget cuts to deal with dwindling state revenue for 2010-11.

Last year, Aurora high school teachers taught five 100-minute classes every two days – what’s known as a “block” schedule. They typically taught three 100-minute classes one day and two 100-minute classes the next, or a total of five different courses.

Differing views
  • “We did honor the contract and the arbitrator got it wrong.”
    Superintendent John Barry. Read his letter to staff.
  • “We believe it was about the contract and we believe it’s still about the contract.”
    Brenna Isaacs, teachers’ union president. Read her statement.

This year, the addition means they’re teaching three 100-minute classes each day, or a total of six different courses every two days. That extra 100 minutes was usually spent on planning or one-on-one time with students before the change.

Brenna Isaacs, president of the Aurora Education Association, the teachers’ union, said she got word of the change in a letter from the superintendent – without any attempt at negotiations.

The union filed a grievance, alleging the change violated the terms of the contract, and an arbitrator last month issued a non-binding ruling in its favor.

Isaacs said the ruling may be advisory but “his findings were fact.”

“We have not exhausted all options in getting all parties to live up to their word,” she said after the board vote, noting one option is a lawsuit. “We have not made any decisions, nor have we ruled anything out.”

Issue creates rift among teachers

Aurora board members approved the extra class for high school teachers after teacher and parent surveys placed it among the more popular budget measures.

That’s partly because adding the class brought high school teaching time up to par with elementary school teaching time – about 25 student contact hours a week, versus 20.8 hours weekly last year. Middle and K-8 teachers still teach slightly more.

Some Aurora teachers wore signs showing a knife through a heart to express their discontent with the district's actions.
Some Aurora teachers wore signs showing a knife through a heart to express their discontent with the district's actions.

In a survey last year to set budget priorities, 63 percent of elementary teachers who responded rated the extra class for high school teachers as a “most favorable” option. Among high school teachers, 66 percent rated it their “least favorable” option.

That divide became increasingly clear Tuesday night, as dozens of speakers took their three-minute turns at the microphone before an audience of more than 400.

Lynne Evans, a high school teacher in Aurora since 1976, said she has more students this year than in any prior year.

“Last year, I had 145 students total with five classes. This year, with six classes, I have 191 students that I see over a two-day period,” she said. “I find it almost impossible to give them the attention that they need and the feedback that they deserve …

“I have had to turn children away this year and say I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you now.”

Elementary teachers said they get half the daily planning time of high school teachers and while they may have far fewer students, they’re usually teaching them six or seven different subjects.

“You can’t possibly be ready to pay high school teachers more if you’re not ready to pay all teachers more,” a first-grade teacher at Tollgate Elementary told board members.

Dwindling dollars taking a toll

An informal count at the beginning of the meeting showed those in favor of rejecting the arbitrator’s ruling outnumbered those in support of it.

A succession of Aurora administrators – district department heads, principals – talked about how they’re handling more work with fewer people and dollars.

Aurora Education Association President Brenna Isaacs, center, listens to speakers during Tuesday's three-hour public hearing.
Aurora Education Association President Brenna Isaacs, center, listens to speakers during Tuesday's three-hour public hearing.

A handful of community members who served on the district’s budget committee also urged the board to reject the ruling, saying their tough decisions in compiling $17 million in savings should stand.

“Every company is asking every employee in these tough economic times to make sacrifices,” said Karen Porter, a parent on the committee.

Tony Johnson, a custodian at Gateway High School, said he was out of work for two years before being hired by the school and that the extra class period is “a fair concession.”

“We all need to sacrifice,” he said. “We all need to make concessions.”

Such comments clearly upset some high school teachers, who said they felt they were being portrayed as lazy or ungrateful.

Kasi Mireles, a social studies teacher at Rangeview High School, said she was ok without additional money but that, “180 students is too many students for me to connect with and to help.”

“I want to be able to connect with my students … and I don’t want anybody to get fired,” she said. “But don’t tie my hands, help me to help kids.”

Jessica Rodriguez, a North Middle School literacy teacher who taught 180 students in six courses last year, urged high school teachers to lean on each other.

Adding the sixth course for high school teachers means more options for students, she said, and that helps too. State test data later showed her students made more than a year’s growth in a year’s time.

“At the beginning of the year, I was in the same shoes that the high school teachers are in now – I was frustrated and overwhelmed,” she said. “But after many adjustments and sacrifices, I found a way to be effective. And I realized that their growth was not just because of me, it was because of the time and support these students had with more teachers in a day.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.