A Fort Collins judge gave the Thompson Education Association some breathing room on Wednesday by granting its request for a temporary injunction that will keep in place the 2014-15 union contract, at least until a breach of contract case can be heard.
The move by Larimer County District Court Judge Julie Field is unprecedented in Colorado courts, as it the only time a Colorado judge has ruled against local control by a school board.
Last week during a hearing TEA lead attorney Richard Rosenblatt argued that the Thompson School District Board of Education failed to negotiate the 2015-16 Memorandum of Understanding in good faith.
An MOU is an agreement with a teachers’ association that outlines what benefits the association and its members have. It also recognizes the association as the sole authority to bargain collectively on behalf of all teachers in the district for cost-of-living raises and other benefits.
The district’s attorney, Michael Francisco, said that Field would be setting a statewide precedent if she sided with the TEA. He pointed out that the state constitution grants local control to public school districts, and no Colorado court ever has enforced a collective bargaining agreement concerning a school district.
Field disagreed, saying she was not forcing a contract onto the board, only expecting them to honor the current contract, which she said included negotiating a new contract in good faith. She did not believe the board had done that. She said not granting the injunction could cause the TEA “irreparable harm.”
“Even though the court agrees with the board that it cannot force it to ratify an agreement, it believes there is probability of proof on the merits that it did not reject it for valid reasons,” Field said. “The board cannot reject it for invalid reasons.”
She said injunctions are not given lightly, but she believed the TEA met a series of requirements for one. They include a reasonable probability that the TEA will prevail on the merits of the breach of contract case. She said that by not granting the injunction, the status quo would be interrupted.
“Again, although the district may be correct that it is not required to enter into a contract, it did so here,” Field said. If the injunction is not granted, it “will create a great deal of uncertainty to the relationship between the teachers and the district.”
She said that uncertainty would disrupt the education of Thompson students.
TEA filed for the injunction after the Thompson Board of Education voted down the 2015-16 MOU for the third time, along with the accompanying non-binding arbitration report, at its Aug. 19 meeting. Union leaders contend the board did not exercise good faith bargaining and claimed that the four majority members—President Bob Kerrigan, Carl Langner, Donna Rice and Bryce Carlson—did not intend on passing any MOU brought before them.
Although good faith is not contractually defined in any previous MOUs, the TEA alleges it means the board is required to vote yes on an MOU once its negotiators bring a tentative agreement to the table. Board members argue it means they have done all they can to come to an agreement. They hold that they are not bound to vote yes on anything. They say going back to the table twice and extending negotiations past the contractual May 15 deadline to try and work something out is proof they tried.
The TEA lost its bid to ban the board from making any changes to Board Policy HH, which recognizes the TEA as the exclusive negotiator for Thompson teachers.
Field said she could not stop the board from changing its policies as they apply to contracts past 2015-16.
TEA President Andy Crisman said he was relieved by the outcome.
“I’m pleased with the court’s decision,” he said after the hearing. “It gives us a chance to discuss the contract in its entirety without all the stress.”
Francisco plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling, which puts in place more relief than a win in the breach of contract case will.
If the union prevails in the breach of contract case, the only requested remedy after a last-minute change is that the judge require the board to vote again. A fourth no vote on the 2015-16 contract could force mediation, but it is unclear if mediation is binding.