Ben DeGrow, Education, Featured

Jeffco open negotiations bring hopeful breeze

A new breeze is blowing in one of Colorado’s largest school districts. Once tightly sealed, Jefferson County Public Schools’ negotiating room door has been propped open. The fresh air of student-focused policies soon may start to circulate.

In February the news broke that bargaining would be held in public sessions. Jeffco residents would be able to see how classroom policies are forged and a major part of the tax-funded budget is allocated. Individual teachers could see how well their interests are being represented.

“We are all about transparency and accountability for all aspects of our district,” JCEA president Ami Prichard told the Columbine Courier. “We think it will be interesting for the public to see.”

I’ve been making the case for school district open negotiations for years now. The benefits of trust and transparency are evident. One may even say it’s ethically necessary to invite outside eyes to oversee decisions concerning the use of taxpayer funds with a private group.

Opponents’ arguments tend to melt away once public bargaining is put into practice. Despite fears of creating an unproductive or disruptive climate, audiences and bargaining representatives remained respectful during Douglas County’s historic round of 2012 open negotiations. (Poudre School District has had open union negotiations for years, but they are neither well-advertised nor well-attended.)

Many school district-association contracts have nothing to say about who should be allowed to observe bargaining sessions. Secrecy prevails out of habit. Eight Colorado school district contracts say negotiations should be open. In most cases, the statements are hollow.

Embedded in the 110-page negotiated agreement between the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) and the school board is the statement: “Negotiations shall be conducted in open sessions….” But the kicker follows, “…unless both parties agree to the contrary.”

As long as anyone can remember, both parties agreed to bar the negotiating room door. Three years ago, a concerted effort was made to ask the Jeffco board to honor the contract language. A majority vote quashed the transparency coup, with then-board president Dave Thomas comparing teacher labor negotiations with the Constitutional Convention.

Also in 2011, the Colorado Springs District 11 board voted to hold bargaining sessions in public view. The Colorado Springs Education Association blackballed the vote, its president claiming the group sought to “safeguard the future of children by keeping the negotiations private.” Parent Chad Lawson resorted to filing a lawsuit in an attempt to enforce the board’s decision.

Ultimately, District 11 reached a compromise. Some of the sessions each year have been opened, and no indications have been given that the well-being of any children has been jeopardized as a result.

By all accounts, Jeffco’s first open bargaining session held last Monday was civil and orderly. This year each side has brought forward two topics for consideration. The entire contract is not scheduled for renegotiation until 2015.

The first session gave hints that the two sides might find some common ground in shifting to more autonomy, flexibility, and responsibility at the school building level. Another issue being addressed is the association’s use of taxpayer-funded leave days.

Jeffco parents and other concerned citizens have an important opportunity to see firsthand  how well district leaders advocate the board’s vision of improving early literacy achievement and adding a performance component to educator pay.

The school board and the association are to be commended for taking the first step of transparency together, sending a positive message to the community and setting a positive example more districts can follow.

Six scheduled open negotiation sessions remain. Each session offers a chance to say thanks for transparency, to see how 80 percent of your education tax dollars are negotiated, and to help make the process work for students in Jefferson County.

Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

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