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Arbitrator sides with Dougco teachers union

An arbitrator on Monday ruled the Douglas County teachers union does not owe the school district more than $100,000 in back pay for staff members working in the union’s office.

The ruling drew praise from Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, who said, “We are pleased that an independent arbitrator respected the legal contract involved in the matter …. We expect that the district will respect this ruling.”

But Dougco district spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said district leaders are considering whether to accept the non-binding decision “or to pursue the promised payment by other means.”

At issue is which side is responsible for compensating teachers who’ve left the classroom to work for the union. As union staff, their jobs included providing training for district employees.

For years, the negotiated contract between the district and the union stipulated that each side would pay half of the salaries and benefits of two union leaders. In addition, the contract states the two sides will discuss each spring how to divvy up the compensation for other union employees. For 2011-12, they agreed the district pay half the costs of two additional union staff.

But that’s where the agreement ends. Emails provided by the district show Superintendent Liz Fagen approached Smith about changing the arrangement, saying she wanted to provide more accountability for taxpayer funds.

Fagen asked that the four union staff members report half of the time – the 50 percent paid by the district – to district administrators. Smith countered with a proposal that the union pay 100 percent of the employees’ costs and forgo changes in supervision.

But, Smith said, she emphasized such a change would have to be reached through negotiations.

On Feb. 6, the district billed the union for more than $237,000, or 100 percent of the union staff costs for a sixth-month period, from Jan. 1, 2012 to June 30, 2012. The district-union contract ran for a year, from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012. The union said they only owed half, or $118,500.

In March, the union filed a grievance with the district, citing breach of contract, which eventually led to an arbitration hearing in June.

Smith said there was no verbal agreement to begin paying 100 percent right away and that the 50 percent figure stands because it was reached as part of the 2011-12 contract negotiations.

The arbitrator, who was selected by Dougco legal counsel Rob Ross and agreed upon by the union, agreed with Smith. In his ruling, Gary Axon wrote that “there is nothing ambiguous” about the contract language and that “the facts in this case simply do not permit an plausible contention for conflicting interpretations.”

He also noted that the district relied on talks between Fagen and Smith as its primary evidence for a change in the agreed-upon contract terms.

“The idea that President Smith’s spontaneous remark that she would be happy to pay 100 percent as constituting a legitimate offer …. is, in my judgement, an unreasonable position to take,” he wrote. “This is particularly true when the parties have a detailed and systematic system in place that controls how the collective bargaining agreements can be amended or modified.”

The dispute between the district and union was repeatedly commented upon by school board members in their public meetings, with some members stating the union owed the district money. The comments added to the already tense relations between the two sides; on July 1, the collective bargaining agreement between them expired.

Smith pointed to board members’ statements – describing them as “misinformation” – in a press release.

“We would prefer to spend our time focused on education, not dealing with repeated distractions,” she said.

Watson said the district “remains committed to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars and that includes accountability from everyone who is paid through (the district) payroll.”

“It is unfortunate that union leaders backed out of their clear commitment to pay 100 percent … since they refused to be accountable for taxpayer dollars,” she said.

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