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Adams 12 teachers, administrators start bargaining

The teachers union and administrators in Adams 12 are back at the bargaining table earlier than some expected, but that doesn’t mean the two sides are seeing eye-to-eye on budget and salary issues.

Adams 12 Five Star teachers protest in the fall of 2012 over salary cuts used to prop up PERA. (Photo credit: Our Colorado News)

Adams 12 Five Star teachers protest in the fall of 2012 over salary cuts used to prop up PERA. (Photo credit: Our Colorado News)

The ongoing battle between the two sides — over district budgeting practices, a slew of teacher and program cuts and a move by the district to have teachers pay more into their pension plans than any other Colorado district — is being played out through a fierce public relations battle.

So far, both sides agree that the early start to negotiations is beneficial. The district and union have met once so far for a contract re-opener and have two more meetings on the books May 2 and 9, even though the current contract doesn’t expire until August 2014.

“Both parties are optimistic about the current negotiations process that just started…and the opportunity to collectively address the matters at hand and what’s been put on the table,” district spokesman Joe Ferdani said Tuesday. “It’s just an opportunity to move forward and strengthen the relationship.”

But an early start does not guarantee a smooth start, and the process has already been marked by combativeness. The district sent out a public letter this month asking for the union to hold negotiations in public — something that hasn’t been done before in Adams 12. The union refused.

And the Colorado Education Association, rather than local teachers in Adams 12, seem to be handling more of the communication efforts as the stakes get higher.

“We weren’t sure the district would bargain this year,” said CEA spokeswoman Jeanne Beyer. “But the request to do open negotiations was a surprise. The district and the DTEA had never discussed it.”

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Arbitration continues

Meanwhile, both sides are meeting with arbitrator Ben Aisenberg Tuesday in an effort to work out conflicts that erupted between the union and district after a slate of across-the-board, 1.5 percent salary cuts implemented in September. In part, the cuts are to pay for contributions to teacher pensions — contributions that the district used to cover.

The arbitrator’s advisory ruling is expected within a few weeks, and it remains to be seen how each party will react to what Aisenberg says since the findings are not legally binding.

“The board will take under advisement what the arbitrator says,” Ferdani said. “It’s ultimately important to know that that’s non-binding so while the board will consider that, they’re not in a position at this point to know exactly what they’ll do.”

Beyer said if the arbitrator determines that the DTEA (District Twelve Educators’ Association) contract has been violated and if the district fails to heed the arbitrator’s findings, a DTEA lawsuit is likely to follow.

Both sides try to sway the public

As pressure over the contraction negotiations and arbitration rises, both sides are campaigning to sway the public to their side.

Rob Kellogg, the Colorado Education Association’s director of research and public policy, has shared a PowerPoint presentation with community members in which the union lambasts the district for its overly healthy fund reserves and repeats claims made in a KDVR-Fox 31 news program that the district illegally tweaked budget numbers to make salary and program cuts more palatable.

In a letter written to the community in anticipation of the Fox News report, Superintendent Chris Gdowski disputed its contents and said the concerns come from a “disgruntled former employee.”

The union also dropped 20,000 bright orange flyers on doorsteps from the last two weeks of March. The flyer begins:

“Did you know that School District 12 has money in the bank and could invest more in our students’ education? But the District 12 School Board and Administration refuse to do this. Why? Because the School Board and Administration want to stockpile the taxpayers’ money.”

The flyer goes on to claim that the district over-estimates projected expenses to inflate its budget and shelves the resulting savings.

The DTEA also contacted about 2,000 voters via phone bank, Beyer said.

Several weeks after the flyer dropped, the Adams 12 Five Star Schools Board of Education published an open letter asking for open teachers contract negotiations.

The letter notes that the superintendent’s preliminary budget plan calls for $6.4 million to be spent on programs and services “with high priority needs such as additional teachers to manage class size at the elementary level, additional high school counselors, funding for classroom technology and additional busing for middle school students.”

In addition, the letter describes a proposal to spend $4.4 million on employee salary increases but that the specifics of the compensation packages for certified, classified and administrative staff would be determined, in part, through negotiations.

“Having open negotiations is in the best interest of the district, DTEA and the Five Star community,” the letter continues, pointing out that negotiations last year spanned nine months. “That is too long for our community not to have information concerning this process – what issues are on the table, where the parties stand on those issues, and what progress is being made. When the process prevents the sharing of accurate information it leads to rumors and misinformation. We are committed to changing that.”

Both sides expressed a desire to be conciliatory in a highly charged environment, but rhetoric is still flying.

“It’s unfortunate that some have tried to malign and put a stop to this process improvement through the spread of inaccurate information, and with dissemination of misinformation designed to generate an emotional reaction rather than build understanding,” the letter says.

But Beyer called the letter an act of “subterfuge” since school budgets are open and available to the public now.

“We had a conversation… Do we send a letter back to them?” Beyer said. “I don’t think anyone is interested in getting into a big public fight over this.”