by Karen Shotz
Union contract talks are set to begin soon. Board member John Newkirk proposed a “Declaration of Intent to Negotiate” resolution which passed with a 5-0 vote at the January 15 board meeting, indicating a desire to negotiate with the union.
Last year, the board approved conducting open negotiations about teacher pay, teacher workload, class size, and other contract provisions. After a few open meetings, the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) staged an impasse and walked out, sending talks behind closed doors.
In 2015, the entire contract is up for discussion. Last year’s Proposition 104, approved by 70 percent of voters in Jeffco and statewide, has guaranteed that negotiations will be fully open to the public. Combined with the fact JCEA has been making a lot of noise about the upcoming negotiations, set to begin by March 1, many community members soon may be wondering what some of the disputes are all about.
Colorado law neither requires nor prohibits school boards from creating binding contracts with local employee unions. Roughly 40 of the state’s 178 school districts, including Jeffco, currently engage in what is often referred to as collective bargaining.
Until now most of Colorado’s union negotiation sessions have been held in secret. But a 2001 state law has required school districts to post the completed bargaining agreements online. Anyone can go on the Jeffco Public Schools website and read a nearly updated version of the current 110-page agreement.
Observer readers don’t have time to trudge through all the thick legal language. To get the flavor of the JCEA agreement for yourself, here are seven of the most absurd provisions to which past district and union negotiators have agreed (references are from the 2012 contract pdf posted on the Jeffco web site):
1. “Heads or Tails?” (Article 34-2-5): If the district has to displace a teacher due to another teacher returning, a school closure, or a change in enrollment, the least senior teacher loses out, regardless of how effective a job they do in the classroom. But it gets worse. Believe it or not, this provision says a coin flip must be used to break a tie for teachers with equal seniority. In this scenario, would your child get to keep his great teacher? “Heads, you get to stay. Tails, you have to go.”
2. A Little Extra Tenure (Article 14-4): Following a 2010 law, teachers in Colorado gain non-probationary status after three years of effective evaluations. (It used to come automatically after three years.) This status affords tenure-like protections that can make it costly and time-intensive to remove a poorly performing teacher. But Jeffco goes a step further with this unique provision, granting a guaranteed grievance process to probationary teachers who are not renewed. Tenure defenders say the probationary period weeds out those who don’t belong. But what if a district can’t even do that?
3. “Our Way or the Highway” (Article 7-5-2): If a teacher has a workplace grievance and wants to be accompanied by professional help, she “may not be represented by anyone other than a representative designated by [JCEA].” A majority of teachers have opted to belong to JCEA (which includes a membership in the state and national unions). A sizable number of teachers may think someone could represent them better, but JCEA has decided that doesn’t matter. It’s their way or the highway. In fact, other union rules make it difficult for teachers to even learn about alternatives to JCEA representation (see number 5).
4. Union-Excused Absences (Article 35-6-2): Each year the JCEA gets 275 free “release days” to excuse teachers from classrooms to do business for the organization. Though minor changes were made in 2014, the district pays the released teacher’s salary as well as the cost of the substitute, while students’ instruction is disrupted. There is little accountability for how the days are used. The 275 annual days may include JCEA or CEA meetings, union-sponsored political activities, or as in the past, going to the State Capitol to lobby on legislation.
5. Special Perks (Article 24): This article in the agreement grants JCEA special privileges for using taxpayer-funded district property, privileges offered to no other group. Examples: A) JCEA is guaranteed the right to use “facilities, equipment, district-wide communication systems, expendable materials without cost,” unless the principal has “good cause” to deny the request. B) JCEA “has the right to place notices, circulars, and other materials on school bulletin boards…and in teacher mailboxes.” Out of courtesy, a copy of the materials needs to be shared with the principal.
6. You Can’t Change That! (Article 43) Parents, teachers, and principals at a school may get together and opt for a plan that requires going outside the contract’s rules (e.g., different teacher schedules). Any such site-level plan must be submitted to a 10-member “variance review committee.” Half of the committee members are appointed by the district, and half are composed of JCEA appointees. Even after gaining committee approval, either district administrators or JCEA leaders still can squash the plan by withholding “mutual agreement.” So much for teacher self-determination or serious efforts to innovate at the school level to serve the needs of that community of students.
7. “I’m Not Sure That Word Means What You Think It Means” (Article 5-3-5): For years the agreement has contained the provision: “Negotiations shall be conducted in open sessions, unless both parties agree to the contrary.” Except that until 2014, open negotiations never happened. Nor apparently did previous school boards vote publicly to close negotiations, which would have honored contract language. When a dissenting board member raised that point in 2011, JCEA chose to lash out at the board member rather than address the concern.
The seven preceding parts of the agreement represent some of the more egregious language in the current JCEA agreement. Other provisions can be equally concerning, including the increased class size provision and the constraints on planning time.
While teachers have a right to bargain collectively, don’t we want an agreement that is easy to understand, free of legalese, and provides the flexibility for each community to meet the needs of its staff and students? Teachers and taxpayers alike have every reason to ask what kind of priority the agreement places on improving achievement and doing what’s right by students.