Education, Featured

Union policies hard to defend under Prop 104 negotiation sunshine

Colorado teachers unions did not support the successful transparency initiative on last year’s ballot. A look at several collective bargaining contracts throughout the state makes this absence of enthusiasm quite understandable.

For more than a decade state law has enabled us to see the finished product of school district-union negotiations. Last year’s passage of Proposition 104 has opened the door to watch the process. Citizens are now better empowered to study and question the logic behind certain provisions sprinkled through various union contracts. Exposed to daylight, many of these provisions are hard to defend.

In the Jefferson County School District, the union contract states that enrollment or personnel changes require the least senior teacher to be displaced. This is a common provision among union contracts. However, in Jeffco’s case, if two teacher candidates are up for displacement with equal seniority, the decision is decided by a coin flip. Effectiveness at the job does not factor into the decision. This provision does not protect individual teachers, nor does it promote a better education system

The Poudre School District collective bargaining agreement contains a provision that a teacher deemed ineffective will be required to undergo an improvement plan. That’s fair. But if the teacher is still deemed ineffective after undergoing an improvement plan, the teacher simply gets another improvement plan. Parents might rightly wonder why the union or school board believe poorly performing teachers deserve both second and third chances.

Poudre’s provision was clearly intended to make it harder to fire a bad teacher. Attempting to help a teacher improve their craft is noble, but there ought to be consequences for persistently poor performance.

All teachers newly employed in the neighboring Thompson School District are supposed to attend a “mandatory” orientation session. At the meeting, the Thompson Education Association can explain membership benefits “for no more than 45 minutes.” New teachers can opt out after 10 minutes. Teachers are required to hear the union’s membership pitch, but not about their other options. Negotiation observers might be inclined to ask how this approach best serves the interest of individual teachers.

The Thompson Education Association crafted this policy to provide teachers with limited information in a controlled environment. A new employee typically does not want to make waves. Union officials do not have to make a hard sell, given the peer pressure on an individual wanting to seek approbation from their fellow teachers. It is no coincidence that the information session is held as part of a group meeting.

Pueblo teachers face a bigger burden. In that district’s bargaining agreement, teachers who choose not to belong to the union must pay an annual representation fee, unless they sign and return a form every year by September 15. The revocation forms are only available by personally requesting them from, and returning them to, the Pueblo Education Association office. The Pueblo provision makes the act of declining union tribute payments into a confrontational experience.

The presence of such provisions gives insight into why the passage of Proposition 104 last November was so important. Opening the discussion of issues to the public is more likely to force union representatives to make cogent, impartial arguments. Fashioning those arguments to defend provisions like the examples included here becomes more difficult in public view.

School boards are held accountable at election time, but that is not the case for the private organization with which they negotiate. Some bargaining provisions cast a spotlight on the political nature of teachers unions and their self-interest, which can be at odds with what students, teachers and parents demand and deserve.

It is not reasonable to ask union officials to set aside their interests. However, the advent of Proposition 104 summons journalists, teachers, parents, and the taxpaying public to see the respective interests and priorities more clearly.

Colorado voters asked for transparency. Bringing such provisions to light before new contracts are adopted is a key step in that process.

Greg Bratton is research associate for the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center.


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