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Dougco board backs off ballot measures

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Wednesday opted not to pursue three potential ballot measures severing union ties, deciding instead to change board policy to accomplish similar goals and to officially declare an end to negotiations with its teachers union.

The policy changes don’t go quite as far as all three ballot measures would have, if approved by voters, but they do declare it is an “unlawful breach of the fiduciary duty of this or any future Douglas County board of education” to collect union dues or use district dollars for union pay.

The changes do not address a third potential ballot measure, which would have prohibited collective bargaining between the board and the union. Board members did approve a resolution declaring current negotiations with the union have concluded.

“I think it’s a great decision for them not to move forward on this and save taxpayer dollars,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. “And I also feel they understood that it absolutely is not legal to move forward.”

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Ballot proposals

  • Should the district be prohibited from using public funding for the compensation of union leaders?
  • Should the district be prohibited from collecting union dues from employee paychecks on the union’s behalf?
  • Should the district be prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining with the union?

Tuesday, an attorney representing the union sent a letter to district leaders declaring board members had no authority to place the proposed ballot measures before voters and threatening a lawsuit if they did so.

Board President John Carson said the legal threat wasn’t a factor in the decision to go the policy route, noting, “Our legal research indicates the board can put anything it wants on the ballot.”

What was important, he said, was the estimated $200,000 price tag to cover election costs.

“We want to move on,” Carson added. “We don’t particularly want to drag it on a few more months and setting this in board policy brings closure to it so the district can get on with educating kids.”

Tensions between the union, which has represented teachers in Dougco for more than 40 years, and district leaders have deteriorated since a majority of conservatives were first elected to the board in 2009. On July 1, after the two sides were unable to negotiate terms, their collective bargaining agreement expired and Dougco is now the state’s largest district in which teachers are working without a union contract.

Dougco school board members already have ended the practice of using the district’s payroll system to collect union dues and they no longer allow any district dollars to be used to compensate union leaders who have left the classroom. What board members sought, first with the proposed ballot measures and then with the policy changes, was to require future boards to continue those prohibitions.

Carson, in remarks before the board voted on the policy changes, said the board wanted to consider the ballot measures to ensure it retained local control. He cited a request by the teachers union for state intervention in the recent failed negotiations.

“Going to the voters was a way of ensuring that, if the governor were to intervene, we would ask the voters to help guide the process,” he said, adding, “We have had productive and useful discussions with the Hickenlooper administration … and in the spirit of that partnership, and in order to avoid spending the nearly $200,000 … I believe we will decide tonight not to proceed with the three ballot measures.”

The policy changes do contain “some real teeth,” according to Carson, allowing any Dougco citizen who believes the board is not following the new policies to take legal action. If the citizen wins, the district will pay “reasonable” legal fees.

“If a future board wanted to change things, they would have to do that in a very public manner,” he said.

As for the board’s vote to declare negotiations with the union over, Smith, the union president, said that came as no surprise.

“They’ve been finished since June,” she said. “We haven’t been back at the table for two and a half months.”

Still, Smith said, “We will continue to fight for a collective bargaining agreement. It truly is about teachers’ voices, silencing teachers’ voices, and we’ll continue to push the board and be there for our teachers.”

The board votes on policy changes came after more than a hundred students, parents, teachers and others gathered to protest recent reform efforts and the treatment of the union.

They carried signs and walked in front of district headquarters, prompting honks from passing drivers. A smaller group of board supporters also waved signs.

Inside, close to 20 public speakers addressed the board, many urging them not to approve the proposed ballot measures. Several of them were teachers.

Scott McEowen, a 14-year teacher and a parent, told board members that he worried he would get to the podium and simply cry throughout the two minutes he was allotted.

“We’re just sad,” he said of teachers watching recent events unfold. “We’re profoundly sad.”