Roughly 40 educators from the Douglas County School District filled the boardroom of the district's administrative building at the latest board of education meeting. During public comment, several teachers took the stand, where they dumped hundreds of marbles — representing teachers and staff — into a white bucket placed on the floor between them and the dais.
“These marbles and the people they represent have one clear message,” Mary Jo King, a teacher at Sagewood Middle School in Parker, said at the June 4 meeting. “It's time to work together for a better Douglas County School District.”
The teachers, wearing pins with “CBA” printed in blue, were there to ask the school board to reinstate a collective bargaining agreement, which they said would increase morale and teacher input in districtwide decision making, as well as provide a sick-leave bank. The request that was ultimately shot down by the school board.
“The board will remain focused on a dashboard that includes academic excellence, outstanding educators and staff, safe climate and financial wellbeing,” school board President David Ray said.
Nine years ago, the collaborative relationship between Douglas County School District and its teachers' union, the Douglas County Federation, was lauded nationally. Then, in 2012, a conservative, reform-minded majority board voted to sever ties with the union, putting an end to a collective bargaining agreement that veteran teachers say strengthened communication and collaboration across the district.
“It was just heartbreaking,” King said in a phone interview on June 3. “They just tore down an amazing collaborative structure which empowered teachers.”
The school board's reform efforts sparked years of contention, causing what community members called an exodus of quality teachers.
In 2015, three anti-reform members, including Ray, were elected to the boad. Two years later, four candidates with similar beliefs were elected, signaling a new majority and shift in power. The Douglas County Federation campaigned for the four candidates, who promised to prioritize retaining quality educators and increasing teacher pay.
In December 2018, members of the Douglas County Federation met to discuss bringing back a collective bargaining agreement. Over the next five months, they would spend many hours collecting 3,720 signatures from teachers and classified employees, such as teacher's aides, for a petition asking the board to collectively bargain with teachers and staff, according to Kallie Leyba, president of the union
Members of the Douglas County Federation report that more than 70 percent of the district's licensed teachers and about 60 percent of the district's entire staff signed the petition. The number of signatures that came from members of the teachers union was not calculated, and the union does not release information on its total membership count.
“This is a way for us to have a collective voice and be part of the decision making,” Palmer Hoegh, a teacher at Highlands Ranch High School, said in a phone interview a day before the board meeting. “Our school board and our superintendent have consistently voiced their desire to work with teachers and educators, and to me this is exactly what we need, what they need, to be able to do what's best for our district right now.”
Three seats on the school board are up for reelection in November, and a collective bargaining agreement could be a hot-button issue among voters in Douglas County. Hoegh and other members of the teachers' union said they wanted to present the petition to the board before the start of next school year.
“I know that people get nervous for political reasons and elections,” Hoegh said. “To me, this isn't a political mistake, it's a golden opportunity to make the right decision for our district. Our teachers will be so excited to campaign for the board if they push this through.”
At the June 4 meeting, Ray listed the school board's ongoing goals — increasing funds, supporting a strategic planning process, launching a new framework for compensation — as reasons for not recommending the district move forward with the teachers' request. Many employees have received three raises in the past year, he said. The pay increases have brought the average teacher pay from $53,080 in the 2017-18 school year to $56,082 in the 2018-19 school year, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education.
Ray also pointed to the district's employee council, an advisory group of 40 employees charged with giving feedback to the superintendent.
Teachers left the boardroom with their heads down. Some had tears in their eyes.
Hoegh was “dumbfounded.”
“I'm immensely ashamed and disappointed in having supported those candidates,” she said. “This is a strong statement they just made against teachers.”
Members of the Douglas County Federation, she said, would reconvene to decide their next steps.
“I feel defeated but convinced that when I walk out of this building, someone else is going to have another idea,” Hoegh said. “Because that's how we work. It's not one person calling the shots, it's everyone coming together to think of different ways to help our kids and to help each other.”
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