JeffCo negotiators cook up better teachers union contract

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Many have worried that heated Jeffco union negotiations would boil over and burn down the proverbial house. Instead, district and union “chefs” worked together to cook up a much leaner and more appetizing dish.

In a recent online vote, teachers approved the tentative agreement, putting the final decision in the school board’s lap. Given a favorable vote this evening, a dramatically new agreement for 2015-16 would be assured.

Under the illumination of newly enacted Prop 104’s open negotiations, district and union leaders made major improvements in their bargaining agreement for teachers. Rather than squabble over which perks and other questionable provisions to keep in the dense and dusty document, both sides agreed to start the process from scratch.

The Board of Education set the goal of creating a leaner agreement focused on supporting student achievement. The result was mostly pleasing: 40 pages with much less fat, cholesterol, and empty calories.

The iconic coin flip used as a tie-breaker for decisions about removing or transferring teachers of equal seniority? A relic of the past. With the automatic clout of seniority diminished, teacher performance is given more weight through a fair but rigorous evaluation process and a commitment to make the pay system more flexible and strategic.

Also gone are embedded union privileges like the use of district payroll to collect dues and political funds, as well as recognition and taxpayer financing of release days to conduct union business. While academic freedom measures remain, individual teachers are empowered with balanced information and choices about professional membership and representation in workplace grievance processes.

The overall result of the new contract also reinforces the district’s broader culture shift toward moving more decisions about budgets, personnel, and programs to the site level, with some responsibility and resources shifted toward individual schools and away from district headquarters.

The Denver Post’s editors correctly hailed the agreement as a “significant development for a district filled with acrimony.” Indeed, the acrimony has been hard to miss. From the moment the board’s reform majority won the November 2013 election with sizable vote totals, local union leaders stirred up angst and discontent.

Last year’s round of JCEA negotiations with the new board went anything but swimmingly. The two parties started with a historic agreement to hold the bargaining sessions in public, many months before 70 percent of Colorado and Jeffco voters approved Prop 104.  The more limited sessions were focused on the teacher compensation package and a small number of items.

In April 2014 union officials staged an impasse, choking off the sunshine on negotiations. Following extensive mediation, the reform majority held its ground and approved a performance pay plan that gave all but a handful of poorly performing teachers a take-home pay raise—as high as 4.25 percent for the hundreds rated highly effective. The board raised the salary floor to a more competitive $38,000, and provided bonuses to effective teachers at the top end of the pay scale.

The president of the Colorado Education Association, herself once a Jeffco classroom instructor, told the national union conference in Denver that Jeffco was in “crisis” because of a “hostile school board.” Nearly 50 national union operatives were summoned to town in response, visiting JCEA members to test talking points about the school board.

Union rhetoric against the board ramped up in the fall and winter months, opportunistically fueled by an overblown controversy over a single board member’s request to review the AP U.S. history framework. JCEA president John Ford told union colleagues in Boulder that it was time to “beat the bastards back,” then produced a YouTube video for members saying “the fight is on” in January.

Ultimately, union leaders softened their bellicose tone. By the time the two sides reached the table in March, the focus mostly was on producing a better agreement.

Along the way, the bargaining room cooks had to stir out a few lumps. First, JCEA sued to stop implementation of the Board’s unanimously approved pay raises for new teachers and those in hard-to-fill positions. The district and union compromised and settled out of court on a fairer pay solution. With limited new funds from the state, teachers ended up getting an average 1 percent cost-of-living raise on top of added health insurance and retirement costs picked up by the district.

Second, in May Complete Colorado broke a story about a “Strike FAQs” flier JCEA was circulating to its members in schools throughout the district. Fortunately, the parties involved have taken the high ground and averted the horrible effects of a potential work stoppage like what Denver experienced in Colorado’s last teachers strike, more than 20 years ago.

The final point of contention was over the length of the contract. Accustomed to four-year agreements with expiration dates at the end of August after school starts, JCEA negotiators were skeptical of the district’s proposal to formalize a 10-month agreement with an end date of June 30, 2016. But the union came around when the district team gave ground on a few other items.

All parties now have time to test out the possibilities under the new agreement. In many respects, the result may be a model for other Colorado school districts to pursue.

Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank, and a taxpaying JeffCo resident and school parent.

Column originally posted on Complete Colorado on August 27, 2015.