It took new Greeley-Evans School District 6 Superintendent Deirdre Pilch 90 minutes to do what union and district negotiators couldn’t do in seven months.
Pilch, who just began her fourth month at the helm of the state’s 13th largest school district, gives most of the credit for coming to terms on a tentative 2015-16 Memorandum of Understanding with the district’s local teachers union to negotiating teams representing the school district and the teachers union.
However, she put it all on the line when she called the last-ditch effort meeting between herself, chief human resources officer Kevin Aten, Greeley Education Association President Pat Otto, and GEA representative Kelly Longacre.
“There is a reason superintendents stay far away from negotiations,” she said jokingly near the end of the meeting. “I’m the only one who is in jeopardy of losing their job if this doesn’t work.”
The agreement weighed more favorably for the district than the union. However, Otto said she was excited and was willing to compromise because she feels a renewed since of commitment from the district under Pilch.
“I’m glad for the opportunity for Kelly and I to have this chance,” Otto said. “Traditional bargaining is not working. I think through a different model, we can get this done. Members and nonmembers alike have told us they want us to do business differently. I’m very excited about where we’re going.”
Pilch replaced longtime superintendent Ranelle Lang, who was forced out by the board of education at the end of the 2013-14 school year. She pointed out afterward that she wanted to do this back in July when she took over, but she felt it was too early in her tenure. She feared her legacy as superintendent would be written in the first few weeks of employment if she failed.
“They didn’t know me or have any reason to trust me,” she added after the meeting about Otto and Longacre.
District 6 may be one of the last collective-bargaining districts in the state to come to an agreement, though the agreement at this stage is still tentative. It still needs to be ratified by the GEA and accepted by the Board of Education before becoming official.
The two sides have spent more than 80 hours in negotiations since March. They stalled mainly on three topics:
- Total compensation. The district had budgeted 2 percent to base salaries and agreed to pay for teachers’ education levels, but would not grant a “step” increase, which grows salary for years spent teaching. The teachers union called it a broken promise, but Pilch said the district simply could not sustain the union’s desired salary schedule with the revenue it collects.
- Pay for specialty and other hard-to-fill positions. The district attempted to move positions such as audiologists, nurses, and certain non-traditional teaching assignments onto the administration and technical positions salary schedule to compete with the private sector. GEA filed a lawsuit, claiming the district failed to negotiate the change using collective bargaining practices.
- Retired teacher perks. Under the state’s pension laws, retired teachers can return to work as a district employee no more than 110 days after retirement. However, the district said PERA informed them they cannot count those days toward their retirement, so they needed to take it out of the contract, something the union opposed.
The two sides were preparing for mediation after coming to a standstill last month. But Pilch wanted one last opportunity to find common ground, afraid mediation would lead to more frustration and ultimately the board putting in place its own contract for the second year in a row.
In fact, negotiations have struggled nearly every year for the last decade.
Tuesday’s meeting brought a sigh of relief to Pilch, Aten, and Board of Education President Roger DeWitt, who attended the meeting for moral support.
Otto and Longacre tentatively agreed to the following compromises they believe their 600-plus members will ratify:
- A 2 percent base salary raise with the district honoring continuing education (also known as horizontal, lane or column) increases but no step increases.
- In exchange, the district will give teachers six hours more each year in comp time that they can use however they wish. The time will be taken from professional development and from their work schedules.
- Removal of the retired teachers’ option from the contract. Time worked after retirement will no longer be applied to pension benefits.
- An additional six weeks to come to a solution on salaries for specialists and teachers in hard-to-fill positions. If a solution is found, Otto said she would ask for the lawsuit against the district to be dropped.
Otto said after hearing the school board explain why they can’t afford more than 2 percent and why they won’t dip into reserves, she can understand its dilemma.
“I get it,” she said. “I get why they are not going to dip into reserves. To hear them explain all that helped me understand it.”
Longacre agreed to the concessions, but was more reluctant, and did not seem entirely convinced the teachers would accept it.
“The 2 percent is still going to be a tough one for our membership,” Longacre said.
Pilch also proposed to change the way negotiations are handled.
Beginning with the specialty positions discussion, District 6 will use a consensus model for future negotiations rather than the interest-based strategy that has been used in the past.
The consensus model brings between two dozen or so teachers, building administrators, district administrators, and board members together to negotiate using a facilitator.
Pilch said she had worked with Best Outcomes Inc. when she was with the Boulder Valley School District, and was confident it could help move Greeley’s negotiations forward in a much better manner.
“We plan to bring some dramatic changes to the district negotiating team,” Pilch said while urging GEA to do the same.
Aten said he was optimistic this last-ditch effort by Pilch would work.
“If this doesn’t work, we’re in peril,” Aten said. “And we just can’t let that happen.”
DeWitt was also pleased with the outcome, he said. He’s optimistic the agreement will be approved by union members and other board members.
“I’m optimistic,” DeWitt said. “I’ll admit to being a bit concerned about this. We got a brand new superintendent with a new set of perspectives on our relationship. I was worried about what this would do if it didn’t work. I’m proud of her for being successful. She’s been able to demonstrate to people she can deal.”