CASTLE ROCK – In an unusual move, the president of the Douglas County teachers’ union on Tuesday asked school board members to open contract talks to the public.
“By letting the sunlight shine on our negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees will benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of teachers. “I hope you consider this.”
Smith made her request during the public comment portion of the board meeting. School board member Doug Benevento promised “a speedy and positive response to that from the board.”
Board President John Carson said after the meeting that board members had discussed the idea in recent weeks and support it. “We’re happy they agree with us,” he said of Smith’s request.
Only two other sizable school districts in Colorado appear to conduct contract talks in public. It’s been the norm for “years” in Fort Collins, said district spokeswoman Danielle Clark.
“It’s not that we advertise or anything like that, it’s just that we’ve never said people couldn’t come,” she said. “So the practice of the district has been, they are open to observation.”
More recently, opening contract talks between school districts and their unions has been a theme pressed by some conservatives.
In Colorado Springs District 11, a group called Americans for Prosperity helped spearhead an effort to make bargaining sessions public. A parent sued and one session last year was opened.
This year, the school board and the union agreed to public negotiations and two sessions have taken place, with another two sessions scheduled this month and five more in April, said district spokeswoman Devra Ashby.
All discussions concerning teacher salaries, stipends and benefits are open, Ashby said, while only parts of four other topics, including time and performance, will occur in public.
Mary Thurman, the district’s negotiations liaison, said a handful of community members have attended the open sessions so far.
“Our rich discussions are happening whether the public is there or not,” Thurman said.
Statewide, a lawmaker wants to require all district and union contracts be bargained in public. Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, filed House Bill 12-1118 but the legislation has stalled since being assigned Jan. 20 to the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is opposed to Conti’s bill, said spokesman Mike Wetzel. The CEA, part of the National Education Association, does not represent Douglas County, where the teachers’ union is part of the smaller national association, the American Federation of Teachers.
“Our members are very concerned about the potential consequences this bill could have on the success of negotiations,” Wetzel said, adding, “Opening bargaining sessions to the public could lead to harmful speculation and gossip in the community before ideas are fully formed, and runs counter to the ability of districts and associations to communicate openly and honestly and to find new, innovative solutions that will ultimately benefit the education of children.”
The CEA also doesn’t like the idea of a state mandate.
“CEA is supportive of transparency,” he said, “however, the decision on whether bargaining is open to the public should be determined by the local education association and the school board according to the needs of the local community.”
Some 75 local associations engage in collective bargaining, Wetzel said, with some of those associations in the same district. For example, Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, includes unions for teachers and for clerical or “classified” staff.
Jeffco’s school board voted 4-1 last month against opening contract talks. Board member Laura Boggs, the sole conservative member, cast the only vote in favor of public negotiations.
Douglas County’s union is seen by some statewide as more flexible than other Colorado unions; similarly, the national AFT is viewed by some as more open to reform than the NEA.
For example, the Colorado AFT, led by Smith, supported the controversial educator effectiveness bill known as Senate Bill 10-191, which links principal and teacher evaluations to student achievement growth. CEA did not.
But tensions between supporters of Dougco’s conservative board and union leaders appear to be escalating.
During last month’s public comment session, several speakers mixed praise for the board with calls for opening contract talks.
And Tuesday, before Smith addressed the board, a number of speakers criticized the fact that the district pays part of Smith’s salary as well as that of another union leader and two union members who provide professional development.
Altogether, the district has paid an estimated $1.5 million in union salaries over the past five years, according to chief finance officer Bonnie Betz. Betz and Smith said that pay has been negotiated annually.
The practice of a district paying all or a portion of a union president’s salary while the president is on leave from the classroom is not unusual among larger districts, as The Denver Post reported in December, finding that occurred in 16 of the 20 largest districts with collective-bargaining agreements.
Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen has decreased the amount paid to the teachers union and suspended it altogether in December, she said Tuesday, saying she needed to show taxpayers they were receiving something for the money. Smith said the agreement is in the contract and lawyers are working on it.
“No matter where our respective positions are at the start of negotiations, what we’ve always believed and will always ensure is we’ll do what’s right for kids,” Smith told board members on Tuesday. “For this reason, the Douglas County Federation is asking the Douglas County school board of education to immediately open our current contract negotiations for teachers to the public.”
Issues still on the table for 2012-13 include teacher pay and benefits, she said after the meeting.