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Dougco board approves open talks

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s school board on Tuesday unanimously approved opening contract negotiations with its teachers union to the public, with a first session scheduled in April.

School board president John Carson called it an “historic night” as Dougco becomes “the first major school district in the state of Colorado … to completely open negotiations with our union.”

At least two other districts – Colorado Springs and Fort Collins – have public contract talks. But Colorado Springs District 11 closes portions of its negotiations and the Poudre School District does not publicly advertise its contract talks under the state’s Open Meetings Law.

Carson said Dougco’s negotiations will be posted as public meetings and documents exchanged between the district and the union, such as offers and counter-offers, will be made public.

“People deserve to see how their money is being negotiated and how their elected officials are making decisions with respect to that money,” said board member Doug Benevento. “The door is now open, the public is now invited in.”

Contract talks between school districts and teachers unions have traditionally been closed in most Colorado districts. Union leaders and schools board members in Jeffco Public Schools, for example, voted in February to keep negotiations in the state’s largest district private.

But pushing to open talks has become popular among some conservative groups. In Colorado Springs, a group called Americans for Prosperity led the charge last year and a parent sued, spurring an open session and paving the way for more public talks this year.

Statewide, a bill requiring all school district collective bargaining sessions be open to the public won approval Tuesday in the House by a 33-31 vote. House Bill 12-1118, filed by Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, now goes to the Senate, where it may face a tougher battle. The Colorado Education Association opposes the bill.

Carson noted the legislative action at Tuesday’s meeting and said, “When it’s a good idea, we just go ahead and do it in Douglas County.”

A Dougco mom, Karin Piper, who heads the group Parent Led Reform, was among a handful of speakers calling for open contract talks at the Feb. 21 school board meeting. Board members said they were considering it.

At a board meeting two weeks later, teachers union president Brenda Smith asked the board to agree to open talks, saying, “By letting the sunlight shine on our negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees will benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities.”

Tuesday’s vote was the board’s unanimous response.

Board members voted 7-0 to approve a resolution opening current contract talks, and several board members asked that space be reserved at a May board meeting for a vote on a resolution that would permanently open the negotiations.

Smith, who had a family commitment, did not attend Tuesday’s meeting. Piper thanked the board for ending “40 years of closed-door collective bargaining” and said, “Negotiating in public is doing the right thing.”

Carson said district and union negotiators will formulate their issues and present them at the next scheduled negotiations session April 11. But he, along with board members Benevento, Craig Richardson and Justin Williams, said one thing they hope to learn is what’s being done with the dues collected by the district on the union’s behalf.

Richardson said about $1.3 million in dues is collected each year. It’s not unusual in Colorado for a school district to deduct union dues from teacher paychecks and forward those dollars to the union.

“It’s going to be very important for this board to understand exactly how dues are being spent,” Richardson said. “If they’re being spent for teachers, that’s great. If they’re being spent for Douglas County teachers, that’s great. If they’re being spent for other things …. we need to trace that, we need to understand it, we need to understand how it relates to educational issues in this district and not to any sort of political agenda.”

Asked after the meeting if the district might discontinue the dues deduction, Carson said, “At this stage, we’re just gathering information.”