The Jefferson County Education Association came to Monday’s contract negotiations with a plan to walk out, and they seized the moment. With discussions over compensation scarcely begun, JCEA negotiators stepped away from the bargaining table—and from transparency.
This road has been traveled before. JCEA and other affiliates of Colorado’s largest teachers union have declared impasse more than once in recent years.
When one side declares impasse, regular negotiations stop and a mediator is called in to propose a compromise deal the Board then can accept or reject. In this case, the move also halts Jeffco’s first attempt at open negotiations. The existing contract requires talks with the mediator to be “conducted in closed sessions.” Together the Board and the JCEA had brought in a hopeful breeze of transparency. Now the wind blowing from the union offices has slammed the door shut.
Through three full sessions and one interrupted, the Board had proposed discussing elementary class sizes and curbing tax-funded leave days for union business. JCEA opened up conversation around working conditions, while their call to extend the union contract until 2018 or 2019 encountered resistance from district negotiators. The agreement is set to be opened for full discussion and renewal in 2015, but union leaders want to take the unprecedented step of extending it now.
In calling for impasse, union negotiators cited concerns about the Board’s decision to follow the requirements of Senate Bill 10-001. The largely neglected law, backed by teachers unions, requires employees to pick up a designated share of their retirement contributions. Union negotiators also asserted their frustration with an April 3 Board vote to bring the district’s 16 public charter schools closer to funding equity.
At a rally outside district headquarters immediately after impasse was declared, lead JCEA negotiator Stephie Rossi stepped onto a platform in the parking lot, where a microphone and speaker system already had been set up. She repeated the mantra that the union was acting on behalf of all public school kids. “I want you to join me in standing up for all neighborhood schools,” Rossi said explicitly at one point.
“Neighborhood schools” does not include the more than 10,000 Jeffco students enrolled in one of the district’s option or charter schools. Where does that leave students at the Warren Tech vocational program, the progressive Open School or the fundamental Dennison Elementary, the alternative McClain High School, the Rocky Mountain Deaf Academy, or more than a dozen other schools families have selected to serve their students’ needs?
JCEA officials are familiar with invoking impasse procedures, a tactic that continues negotiations by other means. Back in 2007 contract negotiations went to mediation over the district’s attempt to remove a unique and costly grievance protection for teachers who had not earned formal tenure status. The union went toe-to-toe with then-superintendent Cindy Stevenson, refusing an across-the-board 6 percent raise offered in exchange for phasing out the special job protection.
Two years later JCEA clashed with Stevenson’s administration again, this time over the size of ongoing pay increases versus district reserve fund balances. The union declared impasse, borrowing from the same playbook they’re now using against the new conservative school board majority. Further north, unions in Boulder Valley, Greeley, and St. Vrain went to impasse over similar disputes about compensation.
Jeffco’s 2007 impasse lasted about a month. The 2009 episode dragged on longer, into the summertime, before it was resolved. This time around, parents and other taxpayers can hope the standoff ends sooner.
JCEA says they want trust and transparency from the Board. The statement is rich with irony, since in a few short months the new majority has empowered the minority to bring up more topics for meeting discussions and has made public comment more accessible.
Only one side walked away from open negotiations. Jeffco residents are left to ask why so soon after agreeing to open negotiations the union wants to hide its priorities from the community. Board president Ken Witt has said JCEA would be welcomed back to the table. But union president Ami Prichard has speculated that Monday’s bargaining session might be the last held in public.
If the union honors its own calls for transparency, the important conversations once again could be held in the light of day. And the community could see if both sides really have the best interests of Jeffco students at their core, or if one side has something to hide.
Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.