Are They Focused on Students?
“Now you see it, now you don't.” That's how many in the community are left feeling after the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) pulled the plug on open negotiations.
Our school district uses a negotiating process called interest-based bargaining. For a few weeks this year, Jeffco residents had their first chance ever to watch the process as both the Board of Education (BOE) and JCEA agreed to open negotiations.
According to the bargaining contract, each party, board and JCEA, brings two items they want to discuss—in addition to compensation--to negotiations. In the public education system, one would hope the mutual interest centers around what is best for students. This year the four topics up for negotiation are class size, teacher workload, leave policies, and the length of the contract.
Many were hoping to get answers to questions that have vexed the community for years. However, JCEA declared an impasse after only four sessions (see “Update on Negotiations”).
As a result, the following items will no longer be discussed in an open forum where the community would have had the opportunity to understand how the board and staff work together to balance competing priorities. The result begs the question: “How could this possibly be in the best interest of our students?
Changes in Budget for 2014/2015
New from State to General Fund $12,700,000
(from increase in Per Pupil Funding)
Eliminate Reserve Increase 10,000,000
Savings from employee retirements 4,700,000
Savings from on-going expenses 4,000,000
Proposed New Spending
Mandated Non-Negotiable (5,305,000)
Spending to meet achievement goals (8,655,000)
Increased Student Funding Equity (3,700,000)
(SAED PERA & Healthcare) (2,600,000)
Net Change (Where will the $ Come From?) $ (6,620,000)
Discussions were started around how class size affects student achievement and the ability for teachers to develop relationships with students. Such a conversation could begin by raising questions about the class size targets for kindergarten (24 students) and for first, second, and third grades (20 students).
Where are resources better spent in order to improve third grade reading (a board goal)? Do smaller kindergarten classes in the district have higher achievement? What happens in classrooms that make smaller classes more successful? How many more teachers would the district need to hire in order to make the change? What effect would the changes have on the budget?
There appeared to be an interest on both sides to eliminate nonessential tasks from a teacher’s work day, which would result in more student-focused time. Are there creative ways to reduce the time spent on data entry? Can technology lighten the load if organized differently? Would additional administrative staff make sense in some cases? What do teachers at different school levels think is the best way to solve the workload issue?
Early discussions took place about how leave time could be rearranged to assure teachers’ needs are met while at the same time making sure teachers are in classrooms as much as possible. Is time spent lobbying by union members a legitimate, student-centered use of time at the district's expense? How long should a teacher's or other staff member’s job be held for medical leaves? How do longer leaves affect students?
The JCEA asked that the current contract be extended until 2018 as a “show of good faith” by the board. Is there research that indicates whether or not a longer contract will affect student achievement? Does the uncertainty around negotiations cause teachers to be less effective? What other assurances might have a similar effect?
The board has stated that they will continue use $11.7 million as a place holder for compensation increases as agreed to in last spring’s negotiations. The purpose of the negotiation process is to figure out the best way to allocate those dollars in a way that treats teachers fairly and impacts the classroom most beneficially. Also, at the last negotiations, parties agreed that compensation increases should be used to remain competitive and to attract and retain great teachers.
The JCEA would like to see the dollars allocated as a “step” increase. A traditional step increase would have the effect of leaving 16 percent of teachers, 47 percent of classified staff, and 31 percent of paraprofessionals without a pay increase. Others would see a raise of 4 to 7 percent.
With so many employees not able to participate in the increase, is it reasonable to think this increase might not have the effect of helping retain great teachers? Could there be a more valuable way to remain competitive and retain great teachers? Would increasing beginning level salaries to $40,000, as surrounding districts have done, have a greater effect on recruitment, while at the same time providing our newest teachers with a living wage?
The Budget: How can we prioritize?
Each year, the school district presents a budget with a description of new revenue expected. Fortunately, this year's projections have improved so much that the district has an added $12.7 million in state per pupil funding, as well as another $8.7 million available from savings and staff turnover. In addition the board has indicated a willingness to reduce the amount going into reserves by $10 million.
In addition to mandated spending increases on things like the AED piece of PERA and increased special education costs, the staff suggested additional spending of $14 million in order to meet the board's unanimously approved goals to improve achievement. This spending includes items like a new math curriculum, additional literacy coaches, and investments in technology infrastructure.
You can see in the chart above that there is simply not enough money to fulfill everyone’s wish lists, given the current expected revenues. However, the State Education Fund contains nearly a billion dollars that could be tapped, if Colorado legislators would release the money.
An open discussion about how the priorities will be set should happen in a transparent manner. That is precisely what the current board was starting to do when the JCEA shut down open negotiations.
The Association needs to remember the board must be good stewards of taxpayer dollars in order for the community to continue to support Jeffco schools.
Let's encourage the negotiating parties to do right by students and the community that supports them. Let's ask for the conversation to come back out in the open as soon as possible.