As Thompson School District’s union contract negotiations near their end, the district’s reform-minded school board majority increasingly finds itself caught between a spooled-up union war machine and complicit district bureaucrats. The reformers must stand strong and hold to their positions in the face of this resistance if the district is to reach an agreement that addresses the current contract’s many issues.
Intensifying debate over the district’s union contract has necessitated paying local law enforcement to patrol once-sleepy school board meetings that have grown tense and sometimes toxic. Police escorted majority members to their cars after a recent meeting. The three members of the board’s pro-union minority walked to their cars unconcerned about retaliation.
When asked about the often raucous behavior of union members and supporters, the president of the Thompson Education Association responded that while he often reminds his members to act professionally at meetings, “Passions will be passions.” The statement is hardly a ringing condemnation of current behavior, nor is it a clear call for more civilized proceedings.
The Thompson school board has provided guidance to its negotiating team throughout the district’s negotiating process, and Proposition 104 has allowed the public to watch the results unfold.
Reform-minded members have called for the elimination of privileged union access to district communications systems and facilities, the ending of the district’s current practice of collecting union dues through its payroll system, and a rethinking of exclusive representation rights for the Thompson Education Association (TEA). Additionally, large sections of the current contract would be moved to more appropriate locations like an employee handbook or board policy.
Reformers have also called for more sensible approaches to the contract’s fiscal issues. Foremost among these is the removal of the district’s Performance Management Incentive (PMI) program, which tethers teacher stipends to criteria that have little to do with classroom performance. This outdated program was to be replaced by a true pay-for-performance pilot based on current practice and research.
Reformers also argued for the scaling back of taxpayer-subsidized teacher leave for union activities. Finally, the district’s ever-increasing Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA) burden, currently estimated at around $16 million per year, would be shared more substantially with teachers.
These commonsense proposals represent a bridge too far for TEA and its powerful state affiliate, the Colorado Education Association. Union officials have mounted a full-court press against the reform majority. CEA recently pushed a petition demanding the board back away from a proposed redrafting of the district’s current union contract. The resulting document would have served as a guide star to the district’s negotiating team, and its proposals would have been fairly negotiated as required by the district’s current contract.
CEA’s entrance into the battle has fundamentally altered the calculus in Thompson, raising the stakes and the risks for reformers fighting for change. Yet an angry union fighting to maintain the status quo is not the board’s only concern. District bureaucrats on the negotiating team have consistently failed to commit to, or represent, the board’s articulated direction. The current tentative agreement fails to address nearly anything the board has proposed.
Union access to communications systems and district facilities remains in place, backed by a faulty assumption by district negotiators that a December National Labor Relations Board decision applies to Colorado school districts. PMI remains in place, and no pay-for-performance pilot has been created. Instead, the prospect of a pilot program will be studied by a district committee—an absurd bureaucratic dodge. Pension payment increases once again will fall fully on the district.
Other issues have been cast aside more subtly. For example, rather than push to relocate appropriate contract articles to an employee handbook or board policy, the tentative agreement would only allow for articles already covered by board policy or statute to be moved to a handbook. This slight change in wording represents a serious departure from the board’s position on the issue.
The articles that have been moved to a handbook still cannot be changed without the approval of a negotiation oversight committee, bringing less transparency and accountability. The four-person committee has been kept small in an effort to skirt Proposition 104 and remain behind closed doors—a practice observed throughout Thompson’s negotiations. The new tentative agreement would expand the use of these small, closed committees during future proceedings. This is presumably an attempt to further exclude the public during negotiations in coming years.
No revisions have been made to MOU provisions on taxpayer-subsidized union leave time, and provisions related to dues deduction and exclusive representation remain entirely untouched.
Despite assertions that negotiations are finished from the board minority, the district’s negotiating team, and local media, it appears that very little actual negotiating has taken place at all. In fact, one would be forgiven for believing the two negotiating teams have collaborated to close the negotiations as quietly as possible, ensuring another year of unfair union privileges and fiscally irresponsible practices in Thompson.
As resistance intensifies from both union leaders and district bureaucrats, it is crucial for Thompson’s reform majority members to hold true to the principles that saw them elected. They will need to make tough choices in the face of vocal resistance from a minority that seeks to bend the entire district to its will. Yet these are precisely the choices the reformers were duly elected to make, and make them they must.
Ross Izard is an education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.