CASTLE ROCK – Thirty minutes into their last-minute negotiating session Thursday, Douglas County school district and union leaders admitted they couldn’t agree on a topic and moved on. They couldn’t agree on the next one either. And it didn’t get any better from there.
A few minutes after 3 p.m., the designated quitting time, the two sides walked away from the bargaining table no closer to a final contract than when they’d sat down three hours before. No further talks are scheduled before the current collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight Sunday.
“We’re going to continue to fight for a collective bargaining agreement,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, which has brokered contracts with district officials for 40 years. “Because that’s what our teachers want.”
Dan McMinimee, an assistant superintendent and the district’s lead negotiator, declined comment after the negotiating session. District spokesman Randy Barber said later, “We fully expect business as usual on July 1.”
With 63,000 students, Douglas County would become the largest district in the state in which teachers aren’t operating under a union-negotiated contract, which typically covers areas such as pay and working hours.
“When you work without a collective bargaining agreement … they can unilaterally make decisions without working with teachers or talking with teachers,” Smith said of district leaders. “Everything inside the contract now would all be gone and could be changed at any moment.”
Barber said the district isn’t planning sweeping changes.
“Compensation for teachers will be at least the same as last year – the district has proposed a 1 percent raise and a 1 percent retention bonus,” he said. “We are looking forward to a great school year.”
In May, in the midst of public contract talks, the district released a draft of a 74-page employee handbook that includes sections on compensation, benefits, workload and transfers. Union leaders say the handbook is additional proof that the district’s conservative school board doesn’t want to reach a collective bargaining agreement.
“Typically, districts do not have handbooks and collective bargaining agreements at the same time,” Smith said. “I do not believe they’re working in good faith to come to a collective bargaining agreement.”
Dougco teachers had until June 15 to sign individual contracts with the district stating they planned to return for the coming school year. If they met that deadline, they are due to receive a 1 percent retention bonus.
Barber pointed out that 99 percent of teachers signed the documents and will be back in Dougco classrooms in August.
“We are going to continue with what we’ve been doing – listening to what teachers want and what they need and trying to address those needs,” he said. “It’s in our best interests to take care of our great teachers.”
Douglas County school board members aren’t scheduled to meet again until July 17. If a collective bargaining agreement is negotiated, Barber said, it could be made retroactive to July 1.
Thursday’s negotiations did not appear to signal a negotiated contract is close. Here’s how the session went on key issues:
Dougco district leaders want to change the language of the current collective bargaining agreement to reflect that the Douglas County federation is “a” bargaining agent for teachers and not “the exclusive” bargaining agent.
Brought up early in the session, this issue was quickly discovered to be non-negotiable for both sides.
Smith, reading in part from her earlier response to the district, said the federation represents 70 percent of teachers. Allowing different bargaining agents for different groups of teachers could lead to discrimination among them, she said.
“It permits the formation of different classes of teachers, depending on their willingness to accept inferior wages and working conditions,” Smith said, “and we cannot agree to that … That’s where our position stands.”
McMinimee said Smith was expressing opinion, not fact.
“Your position is your opinion of what could happen, what might happen or may happen in the future,” he said. “Our position is one of trying to provide choice for all employees.”
District and union leaders are 1 percent apart on compensation, with the district offering a 2 percent raise that includes 1 percent ongoing increase plus the 1 percent retention bonus for agreeing by June 15 to return to the district.
Union leaders are seeking a 3 percent increase, and said Thursday they’re willing to accept either 1 percent or 2 percent of that as bonuses rather than ongoing raises.
As another option, they said they’re willing to forgo the 1 percent ongoing raise if the district is willing to bring back traditional increases such as those given for additional education and years in the classroom.
McMinimee said he’ll take the numbers back to school board members but that a 3 percent raise is unlikely.
“We do not feel it would be responsible for the Douglas County School District to grant a 3 percent raise,” he said. “We do not believe at this time we can afford to do that.”
The two sides briefly tussled about the spending of performance pay dollars – Dougco has has a performance pay program since 1993.
Union leaders want to use part of that money to fund 1 percent of the 3 percent raise; district officials say they have other plans for those dollars, including building out a market-based compensation plan for teachers.
District leaders are no longer willing to deduct union dues from teachers’ paychecks, expressing concerns that some of those dues are later used by union leadership for political activity.
Union leaders balked in negotiations, noting they’ve paid for the service, but later conceded.
Smith said she didn’t want to hold up the contract but that she reserved the right to pursue legal action later, noting the district has agreed to deduct dues for its bus drivers’ union. But district leaders said it’s not really an agreement if the union is considering a lawsuit.
So Smith, on Thursday, said the union is willing to take the idea of legal action off the table and accept the district’s decision to no longer deduct dues – so long as the district continues the practice through Dec. 31. That would give the union time to make other arrangements for dues collection, she said.
“I am not in the position to say yes, we accept that and we move forward,” McMinimee said, noting he has to take any proposals back to school board members for their approval.
His statement, repeated several times during the bargaining session and in earlier talks, frustrated union leaders.
“One of our biggest problems has been they come to the table but they have no power to truly negotiate,” Smith said. “So what you see is their typical response is we don’t know, we’ll have to take that back.”
Union leaders as district employees
District leaders want to terminate employees such as Smith, a veteran Dougco teacher who left the classroom to lead the federation full-time.
Union leaders want to retain their district employee status, in part because it allows them to continue contributing to the state public employees’ pension plan. They’ve agreed to reimburse the district for the full cost of compensation and benefits.
On Thursday, Smith said the union would also be willing to pay a small fee to offset any administrative costs. She also said the union would be willing to remove a grievance it had filed with the district over the issue earlier this spring.
McMinimee said he would take the proposal back to board members. But he also said the issue isn’t money, it’s running a person “through our system” who’s no longer acting as a district employee.
“Our district has chosen to not want to continue that relationship,” he said. “That is their right.”
Smith said several other large metro-area districts allow their union leaders to remain district employees.
“This proposal is cost-free,” she said. “This position can only be intended to punish those individuals who choose to be active in a union.”