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Voices: Turning things around in Adams 12

Teacher Mark Sass says it’s not too late to turn things around in Adams 12, where a rift between the teachers’ union and administration is reaching the boiling point.

School boards exist to bring accountability to those whom we entrust our children. As elected officials, school board members have a responsibility to see that the community has avenues to express their beliefs and values. In short, school boards exist to advocate for their communities. How school boards go about their mission certainly varies among communities. For me, the best school boards empower their superintendents and educators to do their jobs with as little direct action as possible. A great example of this is the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education.

When the Jeffco school district faced a budget crunch in 2011 – as was the case with many Colorado school districts – the board, under the leadership of Chairman David Thomas, empowered Superintendent Cynthia Stevenson and union President Kerrie Dallman to take a unique and never-done-before approach to the difficult task of negotiating budget cuts. They decided to collaborate, along with other district stakeholders, around the common value of student achievement to make decisions on what to cut.

Two representatives from the union, the district, the school board and groups from the administrators and classified staff members, attended a two-day summit. Everything was on the table from athletic fees to transportation, from teacher salaries to administrator salaries. The negotiations were made more difficult by those from both the board and union, who saw this new approach as too drastic a shift from the past. For them, giving up control to a consensual form of negotiation was not in the best interests for their respective groups.

A total of $40 million was cut from the 2011 budget. The same process was used in 2012. Because of their work both Dallman and Stevenson have been named as “Leaders to Learn From” by Education Week. Today the challenge for the district is to maintain this same level of collaboration with different players at the table. This is especially true since Dallman was elected as the new Colorado Education Association president last spring.

The level of trust and respect that the summits generated led to a collaborative decision-making process that was a significant change from the past, which had seen the board and the union engage in outright hostility and charges of the usual canard of not doing what was right for kids.

Contrast the collaborative and shared values of the Jeffco summits to what is happening today in Adams 12 Five Star School District.

For 40 years the Adams 12 school board and the District 12 Teachers Association (DTEA) have had a relatively professional and honest labor-management relationship. Not so today.

In June of last year, the school board made a unilateral decision to cut teacher’s pay by 1.5 percent to make up for a state imposed increase in PERA payments. DTEA claimed that the board had violated the master agreement, which members pointed out specifically forbid such a unilateral decision. DTEA filed a class action grievance against the board. All of this took place during negotiations for the current master agreement, which expires in August of 2014.  The negotiations have hit an impasse.

Both parties agreed to hire a fact-finder whose finding, while not binding, was accepted by the association but rejected by the board. The fact-finder found that the district does have enough revenue to “fund, at least, some of the economic adjustments, while keeping faithful (to its board policies).”

In the meantime, the labor-management relationship has deteriorated to name-calling and public displays of anger and frustration. Morale among teachers is low, which couldn’t come at a worse time as the district looks to implement new standards and standards-based grading – all of which takes extraordinary efforts on behalf of all district personnel. Charges of union busting and harassment have been aired in public and at school board meetings. Things are coming to a head in Adams 12.

Most frustrating for me is what could have been. Using the Jeffco model we could have engaged in tough decision-making with a focus on shared values of increasing student achievement and respect for each other. It will be hard, but we can turn things around. Let’s do what we expect from our students; stop and reflect on what went wrong and look to news ways to get it right and try again.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.