School district, union once had harmony

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Seventeen months ago, the collaborative relationship between the Douglas County School District and its teachers’ union was lauded nationally.

An agenda for the February 2011 Conference on Labor-Management Collaboration described the relationship as “an outstanding example of labor-management collaboration and innovation.”

“We look forward to sharing the work we have done with our partner, the Douglas County Federation,” Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said then. “We are excited that our tradition of innovation and collaboration will be showcased for a national audience.”

Today, that partnership is in shambles, with the two groups in the spotlight for the dissolution of the long-held collective bargaining agreement that expired June 30.

As in most divorces, the two blame one another for the organizational breakdown, citing instances of betrayal and deepening distrust.

Union president Brenda Smith says fissures started to show during the 2009 school board campaigns, while school board president John Carson says the heaviest blow to the relationship came with the fall 2011 failure of two district ballot issues.

In 2009, the Republican Party endorsed the four candidates who won the election, and the union endorsed four who lost, who included members of both major parties. Both the Republican Party and the American Federation of Teachers, of which the DCF is an affiliate, contributed to their candidates’ campaigns.

Smith says the DCF was alarmed by candidates’ proposals for educational reform and some anti-union sentiment.

Carson says the union did little to support the 2011 ballot issues that would financially have bettered the district, then began a divisive, post-election letter-writing campaign to DCF members.

“The members of the board are not typically people who support tax increases, but they saw the need and were willing to do what was best for the district and the teachers,” Carson said. “The union just took political advantage of that and slammed us.”

The DCF urged its members in a Nov. 2, 2011, post-election letter not to allow “political ideologies of adults to overshadow what is best for the students,” and to demand “accountability from those in charge.”

Smith denies Carson’s assertion that the union was non-supportive. A 2008 union contribution of $10,000 to support a district funding vote was rolled over to support the 3A and 3B ballot issues in 2011, she said, adding that union staff made robo-calls and spoke in favor of the 2011 proposals at numerous community and school meetings.

“We heard rumors they were going to blame (the failure) on us,” Smith said.

She believes the district failed to provide enough information on its proposals to teachers and the public. That, coupled with the March 2011 introduction of a voucher program that later was halted by a lawsuit, made the community leery of the district, Smith said, contributing to the ballot issues’ defeat.

Carson said the board also thought it had the union’s support for the voucher program, later learning otherwise.

“I always went out of my way as board president to positively speak of the union,” he said. “They were the ones, all during that time, who were undermining the district leadership and spreading mis-information.”

Teachers have grown more mistrustful, Smith said, because they haven’t had input on some major district proposals, including changes to their compensation programs.

“Douglas County’s always been a school district that has embraced change,” she said. “I think change goes better if you bring all parties together and have conversations about why things need to change.”

The union has asked the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to intervene and help break the standoff between the district and union surrounding the collective bargaining agreement. The state has not yet indicated it will take such action.

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