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Jefferson County school district, union reach tentative agreement

GOLDEN — Officials from Jeffco Public Schools and the Jefferson County Education Association Thursday evening reached a “ground breaking” 10-month tentative agreement that some feared would devolve to a total impasse.

While officials from the teachers union expressed — repeatedly — their opposition to the length of the contract, the two sides compromised Thursday on a plan to reduce classroom size for elementary schools, require schools with more than 400 students to hire a librarian, and delay the rollout of a new system of tracking teachers’ personal leave time.

“We are horribly disappointed in the 10-month duration of the contract because it does not demonstrate any commitment to the teachers,” Arik Heim, a teacher at Wheat Ridge High School, said, accepting the district’s final terms and asking for those changes in writing. “But in the interest of having an agreement in place when our teachers show up to work on Monday, and so they can focus on the interests of our students, we hope that [the district] can doctor up language quickly so we can sign a temporary agreement tonight.”

After some minor tweaks to the contract language, a tentative agreement was signed by Heim and the district’s lawyer Jim Branum.

Five months in the making, the new contract must be ratified by a majority of the union’s members and win approval from the county’s school board in order to go into effect.

Union President John Ford said he’ll present the contract language to his some 3,500 members at an Aug. 21 meeting. If ratified, the board will have its chance to vote on the contract at its Aug. 27 meeting.

The union’s current contract expires Aug. 31.

Relations between JCEA and the school board’s majority have been strained since the board began linking teacher pay to their performance on evaluations. Previously, teacher pay was linked to years of service.

The new contract language, which was drastically reduced in length compared to its predecessor, emphasizes collaboration between teachers and principals to make decisions on issues like staffing and resources, codifies the district’s teacher evaluation process, and streamlines the grievance process.

“This innovative contract is a result of nearly 150 hours at the negotiating table by the negotiating team as well as a commitment to collaboration by the JCEA and Jeffco School Board,” said Jeffco Superintendent Dan McMinimee. “While both sides compromised on contract components, we believe this agreement is good for Jeffco students and Jeffco teachers. I am looking forward to its implementation during this next school year.”

But it’s unclear how the union’s rank-and-file will respond to the contract language.

“I’m not celebrating much,” said Neva Sutter, a teacher at Wilmore Davis Elementary School who attended Thursday’s meeting.

Sutter said the contract fails to improve the district’s evaluation system that she and others believe is unreliable, and provides no assurances on teacher pay in the coming years.

“Myself and my husband (who is also a Jeffco teacher) had two very different experiences with evaluations this year,” she said. “The feedback was completely different. I had 14 observations. He had two.”

While contract negotiations between the district and union started off on a positive note, talks came to halt twice. And the specter of a strike popped up in the spring.

First, the union sued the district over a compensation plan for new teachers. The district and union eventually came to an agreement over compensation. Then, union officials took a time out when the district refused to budge on the length of the contract.

“Some folks I talked to before I took this job told me this wouldn’t end well,” said moderator Jon Numair. “… But I want to congratulate you over what you’ve done these last few months. … Each of you stepped out of your comfort zone to make this happen.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the accurate member count of the Jefferson County teachers union.

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