By Karen Schotz
As reported in the February issue of the Observer, the current 120-page contract with the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) contained a number of silly provisions. Requiring that teachers were selected to keep their jobs based on a coin flip; yes that is there. Paying teachers to be out of the classroom for union-excused absences; yes that is there. These and many other questionable provisions will expire when the contract comes to an end on August 31, 2015.
Teams of union and district negotiators have spent over 125 hours at the bargaining table, representing over 1,250 man-hours of discussion and give-and-take, in order to redesign an agreement. Instead of discussing which pieces of the old agreement should stay and which should go, the teams started with a blank sheet of paper. The goal was to create a simple, easy-to-understand, shorter contract that focused on creating an environment that supports improving student achievement.
The two sides agreed to discuss areas of mutual interest that would have the most direct effect on student achievement. A new contract has emerged that is just over 40 pages in length and covers processes for teacher evaluations, providing professional development, and creating more flexibility so that schools can make decisions best for their students.
A break to discuss compensation
In the middle of the negotiations, the teams attempted to reach agreement on a new salary schedule for 2015–16. This important piece is negotiated every year after the state funding levels are announced.
The school board set priorities of retaining high quality teachers and being able to offer competitive starting salaries for teachers new to Jeffco. With a 5-0 vote, the board passed a new compensation structure which paid new employees for master’s degrees relevant to their fields and recognized years of experience.
Believing these changes should have been negotiated, the JCEA filed a suit in district court asking the judge to stop the district from hiring new employees based on the rates the board had set. The union also wanted more money for compensation. In addition to wanting the district to pick up increased health care costs of $3 million, all PERA contribution increases, entry-level salary increases and performance-based hikes, they asked for an additional 3 percent cost-of-living raise for all teachers.
While such an add-on certainly would have been nice for Jeffco’s great educators, it would have added over $9 million to the district’s ongoing expenses. The JCEA did not make any suggestions as to what programs should be cut or how many teachers would have to be let go to balance the budget with the proposed extra salary increases.
The board, recognizing that they did not want to raise class sizes or let teachers go, agreed to compensation increases which equate to an average of 7.5 percent over the last two years. Nevertheless, they were unable to find the funds needed to increase all salaries another 3 percent, which would have raised average compensation increases over two years to more than 10 percent. With additional state funds and additional cuts to central administration, the board has been able to fund the increases they did award, while also allocating additional dollars into classrooms.
Back to negotiations
When the board and union came to a compromise agreement on a compensation plan, which included bringing current employees with six years or less of experience up to the new salary levels, the union dropped their lawsuit and negotiation retuned to discussions about creating more flexibility in schools. All agreed that the one-size-fits-all, top-down system does not best serve the needs of Jeffco’s diverse student populations.
After several more negotiating sessions, both the district and the board agreed that the processes set out in the new 40-page contract will make serving the needs of student much easier and give more control to teachers and local communities.
At the last negotiating session in July, the only item remaining for discussion is the term of the contract. The union has asked for three years, citing the amount of time that has been spent developing a new agreement. The district team would like a 10-month agreement, citing the potential for items in the new contract that might need to be renegotiated because they aren’t working for students or staff as intended. The district team did not want staff to spend three years locked into processes that might significantly undercut the mutual pursuit of academic excellence.
Historically, all compensation items are renegotiated each year, and each team has brought two additional items to the bargaining table for discussion. Because of TABOR and budgeting requirements, the teams must continue to negotiate compensation each year. It remains to be seen how the teams will come together on the term of the contract. The next negotiations session is scheduled in early August.