CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Tuesday said they’re considering asking voters whether the district should sever ties with the teachers union for the foreseeable future.
Three board members proposed three separate ballot questions, each chipping away at what have been traditional district-union relationships in the affluent county south of Denver. The tentative questions, which were not presented in writing:
- Should the district be prohibited from using public funding for the compensation of union leaders?
- Should the district be prohibited from collecting union dues from employee paychecks on the union’s behalf?
- Should the district be prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining with the union?
Board members are expected to vote at their Sept. 4 meeting on which of the questions – or all or none of them – to place before voters on Nov. 6. School boards have until Sept. 7 to submit ballot language to their county elections officials.
The current board of self-described conservatives has ended the long-running practices reflected in the questions. For the first time in many years, the district in 2012-13 is no longer collecting union dues and its collective bargaining agreement with the union expired June 30.
And while the district paid half the compensation for four district employees serving as full-time union officers in 2011-12, they have no such arrangements in place for this year. In fact, union officers are no longer district employees.
So if those three questions are placed on the ballot, and they’re approved, voters would essentially be binding the district to the practices instituted by the current board.
Board president John Carson said placing the questions before voters would tell board members “whether we have approached this properly. Some people feel we have not and I think maybe the voters should be asked to weigh in on it.”
Carson, who proposed the questions along with members Dan Gerken and Craig Richardson, said approval of the proposed ballot questions would change board policy – until voters decided they wanted to change it again.
That sparked some concern from board member Kevin Larsen, who said he’s worried about placing restrictions on future boards.
“First of all, you’ve got to decide whether you agree with the concept and, secondly, even if I do, is it important enough to codify it so the only way to undo it is to go back to the people?” he said. “I think we all have to do that very soberly.”
The fifth board member at Tuesday’s meeting – two members, Doug Benevento and Justin Williams, were absent – said she wants community input.
“I want to hear what our community thinks and I want to take time to mull it over,” said Meghann Silverthorn. “I’m not ready to jump in with both feet.”
Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, did not attend the meeting, issuing comments afterward.
“The ballot questions the board discussed would further silence teachers’ voices,” she said, adding the proposals have nothing to do with educating Dougco students.
The discussion of proposed ballot questions followed a 5-0 board vote to reject an arbitrator’s ruling in favor of the union.
At issue is whether the union is responsible for fully compensating the four district employees who worked as full-time union officers last school year.
District leaders say they agreed to pay half the salaries and benefits of the four so long as the union agreed to provide more accountability for those district dollars. They say union leaders spurned their requests, such as requiring union staff to report to district administrators, and instead promised to pay 100 percent of those workers’ compensation.
Union leaders say they were willing to take over full payment of the four but emphasized such a change in the arrangement needed to go through negotiations.
An arbitrator based in Oregon on Monday issued a ruling siding with the union, declaring it did not owe more than $100,000 to the district. District leaders say the amount owed is now closer to $82,000.
Rob Ross, the district’s in-house legal counsel, recommended the board reject the non-binding ruling. All five board members agreed.
“The union leaders gave us their word they would begin 100 percent reimbursement effective January 1, 2012. We relied on that word,” Richardson said in a lengthy statement that was harshly critical of union leaders.
“But when the collective bargaining negotiations did not go as they had wanted … They sharpened their war against the district. As part of this multi-front campaign to divide us, they also reneged on the promise to repay us.”
Richardson said he wanted the district to “pursue every remedy until we have our money back … and I will not relent.”
That is, he said, unless the union accepted his challenge – to move what he described as the $52,000 balance from a union political account into a fund created by board members to help teachers pay for classroom supplies.
“I challenge union president Brenda Smith, right here and right now, to move that $52,000 from an account for politicians to a district account for teachers,” he said. “In consideration for the diversion to teachers of that money currently headed to politicians, I would propose that our district write off its remaining claim against the union.”
Smith did not address Richardson’s challenge, focusing on the board’s rejection of the arbitrator’s decision.
“It looks like the board is again saying that the rules don’t apply to them,” she said. “They agreed to this process, even picked the arbitrator and now that they don’t like the decision, they are going to try to find a new method to get their way. What is it going to take for this board to quit playing politics and put students first?”
Richardson’s statement angered some in the audience, who shook their heads and gasped at some of his stronger language. At one point, a woman walked past the media with a paper sign reading “2:00 is up” – a reference to the two-minute time limit set for those addressing the board during public comment.
Board members did not vote on whether to pursue collection of the money they believe the union still owes. Carson said a discussion of next steps is likely at a future board meeting.
One board member, Silverthorn, said she didn’t believe pursuing the issue would be worth the possible costs and time involved.
“I understand the principle of the thing. However, the cost to the district, the time expended … I don’t see it would be worthwhile for the district,” she said. “It’s something we ought to leave behind.”
Board members removed, without discussion, an agenda item entitled “Resolution in support of education funding reform.” But they added, at meeting’s end, a vote to give an additional $500 to all Dougco teachers.
Superintendent Liz Fagen said district leaders now believe savings from the 2011-12 school year, in areas such as utilities, are enough to give teachers an additional stipend.
Dougco teachers returning from last year already are scheduled to receive a 1 percent retention stipend in September. So a teacher making $50,000 a year is expected to receive $500.
Fagen said the additional dollars will be distributed differently, as a flat sum rather than a percentage of salary. So whether a teacher makes $30,000 a year or $50,000 a year, the additional amount will be a flat $500.
Veteran teachers suggested the different distribution method, she said, because of concerns about newer and lesser-paid teachers whose salaries – like theirs – had been frozen for four years.
Similarly, board members said they’d saved enough by cutting out conference travel and memberships to seed a school supplies account with $150,000. That’s the account Richardson referenced in his challenge to the teachers union.
“The board is going to formally present this money at the next meeting,” Carson said, “but I do want to announce we will be dedicating this $150,000 to school supplies for teachers … so they and other folks won’t have to raise that out of their own pockets.”