Tempers flare in teacher negotiations

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Tempers flared and later cooled April 11 as Douglas County teachers and school officials met for public budget negotiations. No resolution was reached, and a follow-up meeting is planned later this month.

A small group made up mostly of teachers and media representatives sat in on the daylong session, open to the public for the first time. The school board voted in March to open the doors to the ongoing talks.

The session began on the heels of good news from the state. For the first time in four years, funding for K-12 education won’t be cut in the coming year. That means Douglas County teachers, whose salaries have been stagnant for four years, are up for a proposed 1 percent raise, and teachers who renew their contracts would get an additional 1 percent increase.

But level funding from the state doesn’t solve all the district’s problems. It still faces an $18.1 million shortfall next year. Changes are planned not only to help cover the gaps left by earlier teacher layoffs and program cuts, but to continue implementing a new curriculum designed to better prepare students for an increasingly technological world.

Salary increase programs based on a merit rating instead of longevity are being redesigned. Despite still-inadequate funding, the district is trying to sweeten the benefits and salary pots to draw and keep high-quality teachers.

It’s a tall order in a district also contending with rapid growth. Douglas County anticipates adding 1,700 new students in 2013. About 61,000 students currently are enrolled in district schools.

Tensions between the Douglas County Federation of Teachers and the district have run high for years, gaining momentum after the 2009 elections. The members elected at that time created a board that district spokesperson Randy Barber calls “reform-minded.”

In response to what the district views as inflammatory and inaccurate information released by the union, the district’s April 11 proposals included tighter controls on union communications with district employees. The district wants the union to provide three days’ notice before all school visits, meetings, letters to employees, postings and direct communication with district employees; to abide by district policy when distributing material through school mailboxes and facilities; and to eliminate all meetings during school hours.

Outraged federation representatives accused the district of trying to muzzle its employees.

“These proposals very clearly to me are attacking the rights of speech and the rights of assembly,” said Jed Palmer, a member of the DCF negotiations team and journalism teacher at Sierra Middle School.

Banning meetings during school hours forces employees to meet during their off hours, which Palmer said flies in the face of the district’s repeated emphasis on improving teachers’ quality of life.

The proposed restrictions were shown on a screen under the heading, “Healthy Organizations,” a reference that union president Brenda Smith found ironic.

“If we’re talking about healthy organizations, many times the feedback doesn’t always match what everybody agrees with,” she said. “What I’m seeing in this proposal is really a silencing of teachers’ voices.”

The proposal also includes no district funding for union employees. Until Jan. 1, 2012, the district paid a portion of Smith’s and other union representatives’ salaries. The funding stopped when the two groups clashed over the district’s request to evaluate union employees and “demonstrate accountability for taxpayer funds,” according to school superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Celania-Fagen.

The district also would stop collecting union dues under the new proposal. The district collects about $1.3 million in annual dues through payroll deductions. Board members repeatedly have asked union officials for details on how dues are used, with minimal response.

As partial justification for the new communication policies, district officials pointed to repeated references by the union to a $66 million district surplus. District officials say the majority of that money is either committed elsewhere or legally restricted, something McMinimee said has repeatedly been explained. The actual available surplus is about $21 million, said Bonnie Betz, the district’s chief financial officer. 

Continued references to the $66 million surplus inflame teachers and taxpayers, McMinimee said, forcing the district to repeatedly quell those concerns and distracting it from other issues.

“We want to be Switzerland,” McMinimee said. “This is not about censoring people’s feelings, thought processes or access to buildings.”

Rather, he said, it’s an effort to ensure information dispersed by the union is accurate.

Day meetings are problematic because teachers may leave them upset or distracted, and visits from union representatives create “a tremendous disruption to the educational environment,” McMinimee said. “We can do better.”

Regardless of the district’s concerns, the union isn’t yet ready to dismiss the topic of the $66 million surplus.

“We do have one of the largest fund balances we’ve had in 10 years,” Smith said.

Union leaders want a more detailed explanation about why more of it isn’t being used in classrooms. They propose creating a budget committee of district and union employees to scour the budget for classroom dollars.

The next meeting will be April 25 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the board room at the school district’s Wilcox Building, 620 Wilcox St. in Castle Rock.