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Jeffco union members OK contract, school board to vote Thursday

Despite deep mistrust of the county’s school board, Jeffco Public Schools teachers approved a new contract that leaves behind chunks of outdated language and expires in an unusually short amount of time.

The 10-month contract was ratified by a majority of union members, the Jefferson County Education Association announced Wednesday. The union did not immediately disclose the vote count.

“Our priority is our students and our community,” John Ford, JCEA’s president, said in a statement. “This agreement is less than ideal for our students, our teachers, and our community, but we wanted everyone to have clear expectations for the school year. We appreciate that teachers have again stepped forward to stand up for all students.”

The next step rests in the hands of the conservative school board majority, which has signaled it will approve the contract Thursday evening at the board’s first meeting of the school year.

The agreement, which for the first time in decades was almost entirely rewritten, gives more freedom to principals and teachers to make decisions such as what training to provide staff. It also scales back some of the historic arrangements between the union and school district. For example, the school district will no longer automatically deduct union dues from teachers paychecks.

School districts funneling dues to teachers unions is a common critique amongst conservatives because they believe those dues are ultimately used against them politically.

The contract also contains eleventh-hour compromises on limiting classroom size and requires schools with more than 400 students to hire a librarian.

It also codifies a pay-for-performance plan rolled out last school year.

But the most contentious feature of the contract, which almost derailed negotiations, is a June 30, 2016, expiration date.

Contracts between the union and school district most recently lasted four years and expired in August. However, school officials on the bargaining team said it was important to align the contract with the district’s fiscal year that ends June 30. The district also want the ability to renegotiate the entire contract given its newness.

There is some precedence for a shorter contract. In the 1970s, the contract would run a calendar year. But the average teacher contract in the U.S. runs for three years.

Before voting opened Friday, teachers pointed out that the district and classified employees union reached a two-year agreement and that Superintendent Dan McMinimee was given a three-year contract when he was hired in 2014. Critics of the 10-month term also complained that rewriting the contract took half that long and said it would be a waste of resources to begin the process all over again in less than a year.

Relations between the union and the district have been tense since the school board’s majority — made up of Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — won their seats in 2013. Some observers have predicted the three would follow Douglas County’s school board’s lead and not renew a contract with the teachers union.

Those fears, in part, are fueling a recall election this fall.

“I feel like the 10-month agreement is just an attempt to set teachers up to face an ultimatum next summer: ‘Accept whatever terms we offer, or leave,’” Erin Murphy, a teacher at Alameda International High School, said in an email to Chalkbeat last week. “This kind of disrespectful treatment is going to push even more teachers out of Jeffco.”