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Dougco moves ahead without contract

Douglas County school board members have unanimously approved a pay plan for teachers that mirrored the offer rejected by the district’s teachers union in lengthy public negotiations.

Dougco school board president John Carson, right, and board member Dan Gerken, left. File photo.

Dougco school board president John Carson, right, and board member Dan Gerken, left. File photo.

Scott Elliott

In a special meeting Tuesday night, school board members voted 5-0 to approve a 1 percent pay raise plus a 1 percent retention bonus. The bonus is being awarded to teachers who signed contracts by June 15 signifying they plan to return to work for the district in 2012-13.

Board members Kevin Larsen and Justin Williams were absent from the meeting.

“Our actions tonight should not be seen as a signal that talks with the (union) have ended,” board president John Carson said in a press release issued after the brief meeting. “We remain open to further discussions.”

The board’s vote, the only item on the night’s agenda, capped months of contentious negotiations between the district and its teachers union, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, in the first public contract talks between the two sides in forty years.

After four years of pay freezes, the union sought a 3 percent pay raise, including at least 1 percent in an ongoing raise. District leaders said that was too expensive and the two remained stalled even after a last-ditch effort to come to terms last Thursday, days before the contract expired June 30.

School board members, who had not been scheduled to meet until July 17, called Tuesday night’s meeting earlier this week. Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen joined the meeting by phone.

In their resolution, board members note that despite “diligent, good-faith efforts” by the district, district and union negotiators were unable to find common ground after more than 100 hours of discussion.

They also note that the Colorado Constitution gives them the right to fix the salaries of district employees “without outside interference, encroachment, or entanglement” and declare the current collective bargaining agreement “expired and of no legal effect whatsoever.”

With the next pay date slated for July 20, the resolution states, board members wanted to “reassure” district staff of “the continuity of the forthcoming pay.” The 1 percent raise is retroactive to July 1 while the 1 percent retention bonus is effective with the September payroll.

“We wanted to provide our outstanding teachers and staff with assurance,” Carson said. “…. We believe that it is in the best interest of our employees to provide certainty in terms of compensation and benefits.”

With their vote, the board also approved a compensation and benefits program for teachers, similarly retroactive to July 1, that it states will “govern … the employment relationship of the district” with teachers through June 30, 2013. The 45-page document details salary, working hours, class size and other issues typically covered in a collective bargaining agreement.

Union leaders, who have sought the state’s intervention in the labor dispute, have accused the conservative school board of attempting to break up the union. At the end of last Thursday’s bargaining session, district negotiators said they planned to meet with board members to present various proposals from the union.

But it was clear the clock was running out on the contract.

“We’re going to continue to fight for a collective bargaining agreement,” pledged union president Brenda Smith.

Carson, the board president, said he expected the union to present a proposed agreement at the board’s July 17 meeting: “We certainly look forward to hearing their thoughts.”

Board member Meghann Silverthorn said the board’s action provides “continuity for now” and described it as “a bridge on the way forward” as talks continue with the federation, which also represents classified or clerical employees.

“I don’t want anybody to construe this as us not being open to having those discussions in the future,” she said.

As of July 1, Douglas County became the state’s largest school district in which teachers are working without a negotiated agreement. The affluent district south of Denver is Colorado’s third-largest, with 63,000 students.

It also was the only sizable district in which a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two national teachers unions, is active. Teachers in other large districts, including Jefferson County, Denver, Cherry Creek, Adams 12-Five Star and Aurora, are presented by the Colorado Education Association, part of the National Education Association.

While state K-12 education funding remains flat for 2012-13, after declining for consecutive years, many school districts are making cuts for the coming year as their costs continue to increase.

In Jefferson County, the state’s largest school district, teachers will again have two furlough days in 2012-13. Denver teachers will receive a 1 percent raise contingent upon voters approving an expected tax increase on the November ballot.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Carson noted Dougco employees will experience no furlough days next school year, though up to four were contemplated at one point. He also said 98 percent of teachers have committed to returning to district classrooms this fall.

“We are moving forward and we’re going to have another great academic year,” he said.