GOLDEN — The Jefferson County school district and teachers union began contract negotiations in earnest Monday and both sides left the first meeting feeling optimistic.
“It’s a good start,” Stephanie Rossi, a Wheat Ridge High School history teacher and lead negotiator for the Jefferson County Education Association, said at the end of the four hour meeting.
Officials from Jeffco Public Schools and the union hope to have a new contract solidified by the end of May. But the district’s board room is reserved for negotiations almost every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday until the contract expires on July 31.
Some teachers and community members are worried Jeffco will become the largest school district in the state without a teachers union. That’s because they believe the aim of the conservative board majority, elected in 2013, is to weaken the teachers association just as the Douglas County school board did to its union in 2012.
Jeffco school board president Ken Witt has deflected those accusations and called for a fresh start with negotiations earlier this year. Last year, the union declared an impasse and the school board majority ultimately developed its own pay compensation system based on performance, not years in the classroom.
And if the district negotiating team has its way, that’s exactly what the end result will be: a near-complete rewrite of the teacher contract that is more of a blueprint to managing human resources and priorities than a proscriptive set of steps to cope with conflict.
“While it might not look like a traditional [interest-based bargaining] process, we are very committed to the collaborative aspects of the IBB process,” said Jim Branum, the district’s lead negotiator, during his opening remarks. “By working around the table, we’re going to come out with a much better agreement.”
While it appeared everyone left the bargaining table in high spirits after several laugh-out-loud moments, the meeting did not get off to a smooth start.
Early on, the independent moderator Jon Numair pointed out that the district is asking to invert the model of collective bargaining.
Normally, when a contract is renegotiated, both the employees’ association and district assume if particular language or issues are not discussed, those sections of the contract remain intact, Numair said. But the district is asking that only language that is discussed and approved by both sides stays. Everything else in the contract could be dumped.
Members of the union said multiple times that they understood the district’s position and were starting from a similar point. But union members stressed they believed most of the language needed only to be tweaked, not eliminated or completely rewritten.
Despite everyone at the table seeming to be in agreement on this “starting point,” the moderator appeared unconvinced. He repeatedly asked, “are we sure?” “Do we have agreement” on a starting place?
Finally, Lisa Elliott, the union’s executive director, suggested the group identify common interests based on both sides’ opening pitch. Those common interests, she said, could become the focus of the first working groups to develop contract language.
The rest of the meeting was spent working through some of those topics including effective teachers, educating the whole child, and school-level autonomy.
One mild scuffle that could foreshadow future conflict was a discussion between Elliott and Amy Weber, Jeffco’s human resource director, about how principals should work collaboratively with teachers.
“School-based autonomy sounds great until you’re in a building where it’s the principal’s way or the highway,” Elliott said urging for oversight.
This is the second year contract negotiations between the Jeffco school district and its union are open to the public. There were about six audience members as the meeting started, a far cry from the hundreds who usually pack school board meetings. The numbers fluctuated throughout the evening. At most there were a dozen. Toward the end of the four-hour session, only four teachers remained in the audience.
This marks the first year all school districts must negotiate with their respective teachers unions in public. Colorado voters in 2014 approved Proposition 104 which made contract talks public meetings.