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Negotiations back on in Dougco

Updated 4:30 p.m. Tuesday – Douglas County School District and teachers union officials have agreed to return to the bargaining table Thursday, days before their collective bargaining agreement is set to expire June 30.

The session is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. at the district’s administrative headquarters, 620 Wilcox St. in Castle Rock. This year, negotiations are open to the public.

District spokesman Randy Barber said union officials Tuesday morning requested additional negotiations sessions. District officials responded in the afternoon, asking that three topics head the agenda – exclusivity of the union, or the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, in representing teachers; compensation; and communications with members of the public.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County federation, sent a message Tuesday to members – about 70 percent of all Dougco teachers – explaining that she had again requested more negotiating time.

She also said that the federation is continuing its request for the state Department of Employment and Labor to intervene. Read the message to teachers.

Updated 3:30 p.m. Monday – The Douglas County School District has replied to Brenda Smith, head of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, by declaring “We are both disappointed and confused by your letter, but we want you to understand that we remain open to further negotiations if you are interested.” Read the reply.

Original Friday story begins here:

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s school board and its teachers union have a week to finalize a collective bargaining agreement or become the largest school district in Colorado operating without one.

The latest exchanges between district and union leaders doesn’t appear to bode well for a negotiated contract by June 30, with both sides declaring the other is refusing to continue productive dialogue.

Leaders of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers this week asked the state Department of Labor and Employment to intervene in the standoff. Friday, spokesman Bill Thoennes said the department was gathering information and had yet to make a decision on the request. He said there’s no deadline for that decision.

Dougco school board member Dan Gerken issued a statement Thursday saying the board was “disappointed” that “instead of continuing negotiations,” the union sought the state’s intervention.

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“We strongly believe the issue of the Douglas County School District budget is one of local control,” Gerken said, adding, “To date, we have invested over 100 hours at the negotiating table … the union has ignored invitations to schedule more time.”

Brenda Smith, president of the Dougco federation, said she strongly disagrees with the idea that the union has backed away from the bargaining table. In a letter sent Thursday to teachers, Smith wrote that union negotiators made “significant” compromises in their quest for a collective bargaining agreement.

“Each time we made progress in negotiations, the Douglas County school board moved the goal posts,” she said.

“Unfortunately,” she also wrote, “the new leadership of the district has made it clear they no longer have any intention of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the organization to which more than 70 percent of its teachers belong.”

The stall comes during the first open contract negotiations between the district and the union in 40 years. The first open session was held April 11, followed by public meetings in May and June, with a final session on June 8. No additional talks are scheduled, though the district’s lead negotiator, Assistant Superintendent Dan McMinimee, has told union leaders he can be available next week.

Pay is a point of contention, with the two sides separated by 1 percent. The district offered a 1 percent raise plus a 1 percent retention bonus for all teachers willing to sign new contracts by June 15. They also want to add a day to the contract.

The union proposal is for a 2 percent raise plus the 1 percent bonus for returning teachers and no additional day. Union leaders also weren’t happy about, but agreed to, a district plan to phase out other teacher compensation pieces – such as raises earned for additional education – to fund the district’s pay offer.

But other points of dispute have generated more heat than the pay issue. For example, the district no longer wants to collect union dues from teacher paychecks – something it’s been paid by the union to do for many years.

And the district wants to change contract language that describes the union as “the exclusive” bargaining agent for teachers. Instead, the federation, a chapter of the national American Federation of Teachers, would simply be “a” bargaining agent.

“To be clear, we are asking for choice for our teachers … you are asking for a monopoly,” McMinimee wrote to Smith on June 12.

Wrong, Smith responded Thursday.

“Exclusivity for a union with majority support is not a monopoly, it is democracy,” she wrote. “It is order rather than chaos. It allows employees to select their representative freely, without coercion from the employer. It allows them to amplify their voice through collective action under our constitutionally protected right to freedom of association.

“Without it, under current Colorado labor laws, the employer would be free to discriminate among employees to divide and conquer them … We will not agree to it.”

At 63,000 students, Dougco is the state’s third-largest school district. It is also the only large district represented by the AFT. Most districts in Colorado, including Jefferson County, Denver, Cherry Creek and Adams 12-Five Star, are represented by chapters of the National Education Association.

It’s unclear what impact the lack of a collective bargaining agreement might have in Dougco. As of last Friday, the June 15 deadline by which the district required teachers to return individual contracts and receive a 1 percent retention bonus, only 51 of the district’s 2,979 teachers had not signed on to return for another year.

Those individual contracts don’t specify compensation for 2012-13, simply guaranteeing the teacher will not be paid less and leaving open the possibility negotiations will continue, said district spokesman Randy Barber.

If no collective bargaining agreement is reached before students return in the fall, “The majority of teacher have signed contracts and we expect school will continue as usual,” Barber said.

Dougco has yet to reply to the union’s request for state intervention. Such a request from a teachers’ union is unusual but not unprecedented. In 2008, the Denver teachers association asked Don Mares, then executive director of the labor and employment department, to intervene in a contract dispute with former DPS Superintendent and now U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado.

Mares declined.

“While it is clear that disagreement exists between the parties, at this point I do not believe that the dispute affects the public interest,” Mares said.

Kerrie Dallman, recently elected president of the Colorado Education Association after serving as head of the Jefferson County teachers’ union, said, in general, working without a collective bargaining agreement means teachers would be working solely under district and board policy.

“Both can be changed unilaterally,” Dallman said, although she noted district leaders might have to hold a public reading or two of the new policy before voting to implement the change.

For example, “the board and district would not be contractually obligated to discuss a proposed decrease or increase in pay with the employees or their representatives,” she said. The same goes for the length of the school day or the school year.

“The teachers’ voices can be totally left out of any discussion on curriculum, teacher accountability and performance,” Dallman said, adding, “It is unfortunate that the Douglas County school board is seeking to silence the voices of their highly trained and experienced professionals.”

Douglas County teachers’ union request for state intervention

You can also read the letter here.