Negotiations between Aurora’s teachers union and the school district have stalled over a comment made by the union’s lead negotiator suggesting the district was “enslaving” teachers with one of its proposals.
Six district negotiators boycotted the scheduled bargaining session Thursday night. Two remaining district members who attended, “out of courtesy,” closed the session after expressing their own distress with the comments.
Aurora’s chief of staff said the other six district negotiators were weighing “whether or not they can continue.”
The uproar stems from a Feb. 20 bargaining session. Just before the session wrapped up, the union’s lead negotiator, a white woman whose name the union declined to release, criticized the district’s proposal to set for the first time a deadline for when teachers can transfer jobs within the district, well before the start of a new school year.
“You’re enslaving a teacher into a position and not allowing them to move into a position they’ve been waiting for, a position they’ve been preparing for,” she said.
No one at the table, including district representatives, reacted immediately. The session ended less than a minute later as the teams moved into small groups to strategize.
To watch the comment, skip to minute 30 in the video:
On Thursday, the woman apologized.
“It was not my intention to offend. And worse, I’m actually distressed that I have caused people pain over that,” she said. “I welcome any further discussion with team members to make amends on the district team and restore my relationships.”
Bruce Wilcox, president of the Aurora Education Association, which represents other educators besides teachers, spoke at a school board meeting Tuesday and offered to take responsibility, even suggesting that if members wanted him to step down, there is a process for that. Friday morning, the union also issued a statement apologizing.
“This statement was offensive and wrong. We do not wish to provide any excuses for the word choice that was used,” the statement said. “We care deeply about our students and members, and we are sorry that this offensive statement was made.”
The union statement also proposed racial justice training for its negotiators.
“In an attempt to restore our relationship with those who were hurt and angered by this comment, our bargaining team will be participating in a racial justice and anti-oppression training,” Friday’s statement says. “We will be inviting the district bargaining team to that training so that we can grow together.”
Damon Smith, Aurora’s chief personnel officer, and a member of the district negotiating team who attended Thursday’s meeting, said that he was traveling during the Feb. 20 meeting, but immediately after his plane landed he found missed calls and texts from multiple people expressing anguish over the woman’s comments.
For Smith, the comments were also personal, he said.
“For me there’s a certain imagery that comes to mind when we talk about individuals being enslaved,” Smith said. “No less than four generations ago on both my maternal and paternal blood lines, my people were enslaved. Good ol’ master Brantly and good ol’ master Green. So it causes me distress when a statement is made that I as district administration or member of this team is engaging in conduct that we draw a parallel between master Green or master Brantly. That certainly is not the case.”
Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn criticized the comment in a letter to Wilcox on Feb. 24.
“The comments made were offensive and demand an immediate response,” Munn stated. “The American slave trade was one of the darkest, most brutal periods in history. Additionally, APS serves a richly diverse community which includes populations still combating slavery around the world. To compare, repeatedly, a common contract clause aimed at supporting students to such atrocities demonstrates an utter lack of regard and perspective.”
Union leaders, pointing to video of the bargaining sessions, dispute that the term was used more than once.
The Aurora school district, one of the most diverse in the state and in the country, serves more than 40,000 students of which 85% are students of color. The district’s students speak more than 140 different languages. Aurora’s teachers are 80% white.
In a union statement, the negotiations team admits the words were a mistake.
“Drawing a parallel between slavery and feeling trapped in a teaching position was an extremely inappropriate metaphor,” the union statement read.
But Thursday at a bargaining session that ended in less than 10 minutes without any bargaining, Wilcox said he has tried repeatedly to address the error, and said the district has not been willing to hear his apology.
“There is nothing more that we can say or do other than to say it was a mistake,” Wilcox said. “We will do our best not to repeat it.”
The woman who made the statement remains on the negotiating team. Asked whether her removal had been considered, Wilcox said, “We are examining all forms of repair.” But he reiterated that she has apologized.
“We believe that when possible we should help increase awareness and help people learn from mistakes.”