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Dougco, union begin public talks

  • To listen to the April 11 public negotiations session in four audio files and to see the schedule of the next open sessions, visit this district webpage.

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school district leaders on Tuesday announced plans to cut $18 million from next year’s budget as they prepare for their first public negotiations with teachers’ union leaders.

Proposals submitted by the district and union in advance of Wednesday’s open session show the two sides are far apart on teacher pay and other issues that affect the budget proposal for 2012-13.

“I’m happy to see the cuts have lessened to the classroom but I still believe those cuts should be eliminated altogether,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of teachers, who describes the district as “sitting on a $66 million surplus.”

“I still believe the cuts should be down to nothing across the district,” Smith said.

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen described an $18.1 million shortfall caused by a required increase in contributions to the employee pension plan and by the need to replace the nearly $16 million in one-time funds used to plug gaps in this year’s budget.

“We are absolutely committed to putting our students and employees first and doing everything we can to positively impact the classroom,” Fagen said, “and this package does that.”

The biggest hit to classrooms in the budget plan occurs at the district’s high schools, where teachers will be required to teach six classes rather than five next year.

That allowed the district to cut about 50 secondary teachers, who can now apply for an expected 100 openings in schools across the district, said spokesman Randy Barber.

Teachers would get first raises in years, but plan requires tradeoff for some

Under the proposal, teachers would receive a 1 percent pay increase – their first raise in four years – and they would be eligible for a 1 percent retention bonus if they commit to another year by the district’s deadline.

But there’s a tradeoff for some teachers. To fund those increases, the district wants to phase out the raises given when teachers earn a master’s degree or complete 10 years of service.

The district also wants to phase out the $38,000 payout given to teachers who leave the district after 15 years, a stipend referred to as an “extended service severance.”

“We want to move away from these automatic increases and really go toward appropriate compensation for everyone, with additional performance money on top of it,” Fagen said.

Smith sees it differently.

She pointed out the district’s proposal includes an additional work day for teachers and said the idea of rewarding teachers for continued learning is valuable.

“We value … continued education for our teachers,” she said, referring to the additional dollars for a master’s degree. “It’s something we believe in and hold of value, along with staff development and continuing to increase our knowledge.”

The union’s proposal includes a raise equal to inflation, about 2.7 percent, plus additional money for another year of experience, what’s known as a “step” in the education world. A step in Dougco ranges from 1.8 to 2.3 percent.

Union leaders are seeking both in 2012-13 “because our teachers have been frozen for the past several years,” Smith said.

District proposal would limit union communications, stop collection of dues

Other aspects of the district’s proposal already are sparking a buzz on blogs and Facebook pages.

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen

Dougco Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen

Scott Elliott

Those include eliminating the district’s role in collecting union dues via automatic payroll deductions and no longer paying any portion of the salary of teachers serving as union officers, such as Smith. Both practices are fairly common in other Colorado school districts.

Also, the district would prohibit the union from contacting members or other employees through district mail or email without providing three days’ notice to district leaders. Union leaders also would be prohibited from using district facilities for meetings or from school visits without the same notice.

Smith said those provisions are intended to silence the voices of teachers.

“It really does limit teachers’ rights to talk to each other and I believe that’s because teachers have questioned and have been critical in the past about the way the district has managed their budget,” she said.

“Teachers are a vital voice for parents and students and, in many ways, they’re the watch dog of the school district. It’s one thing for them to disagree with teachers but it’s something else altogether to try to silence them.”

Fagen said the district’s proposal is not an attempt to “break” the union.

“We are just trying to provide a better environment for all of our employees going forward in the ways we have available to us,” she said. “We’ve heard from employees that they want positive, accurate communication … they don’t like divisiveness.

“I think that we have a responsibility to put something on the negotiations table to talk about what we believe would improve the culture and climate and, as a result, the morale of our staff.”