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D-11 board seeks to open union negotiations to public

February 23, 2011

Negotiations with the teachers’ union in Colorado Springs School District 11 could be opened to the public under a resolution adopted at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

The board voted 5 to 2 to ask the Colorado Springs Education Association to open the doors as soon as Monday as it renegotiates its master agreement with the district. Board members Jan Tanner and LuAnn Long opposed the motion, saying they wanted to give a new negotiating method time to work before adding something new.

“I’m not sure this will make it smoother,” Tanner said. “It might blow up in our face.”

The resolution left many questions, including whether CSEA would have enough time to discuss open negotiations before responding to the district. Board member Charles Bobbitt joined Tanner and Long in opposing an amendment to begin holding public negotiations on Monday, but the amendment passed 4-3.

“It might be ugly sometimes but that is the beauty that is this country,” said board member Al Loma.

This is a big year for negotiations in D-11 as the two parties are discussing every provision in the agreement for the first time in 16 years. That includes teacher evaluations, student discipline, stipends, insurance, post employment benefits and board of education rights.

Usually only salaries and benefits are on the table.

“We are willing to talk about open meetings with the district,” said CSEA President Kevin Marshall, who was at the meeting.

Public access to negotiations has long been an issue in Colorado. Efforts to require it by law has failed in the state Legislature several times, including 2004 and 2005.

The issue in D-11 surfaces at a time when collective bargaining is in the spotlight, with public employees’ unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere fighting efforts to diminish collective bargaining rights.

Educators predict such battles will spread to other states because of the bad economy. Colorado’s K-12 education 2011-12 budget may be cut by more than $375 million.

Some D-11 teachers are wearing red on designated days to show solidarity with unions in other states.

District 11 is the only area district that has collective bargaining, and crafted its first master agreement in the wake of a teacher strike in 1975. (Woodland Park School District also has negotiations.)

This year, the negotiations will be a complex task because the entire master agreement is being discussed.

To make it easier, the parties are adopting what they say is a kinder, gentler format called Interest-based Bargaining or IBB.

Traditionally negotiations are very “positional,” explains Tim Cross, CSEA executive director.
Negotiators formally sit across from each other and  one side’s spokesperson lays out what they want.

“Then the other side says, ‘This is what you are going to get,’ and there is probability of an emotional reaction,” Cross said. “‘Who are you to demand that?’ And off it goes.”

But under IBB the negotiators gather casually around a table and everyone gets a chance to discuss issues in a non-confrontational manner.

“It’s more conversational and has more opportunity to reveal the common ground and not get bogged down on what we don’t agree on,” Cross said.

Deputy Superintendent Mary Thurman, who heads negotiations for the district, agrees. “It enables us to get more in-depth conversations.”

She said one public meeting had been planned in April when the proposals would be laid out for all to see.

Under provisions of the current agreement, however, negotiations are not required to be open.

Before Wednesday’s board vote, Jeff Crank, state director of Americans for Prosperity, urged the board to open negotiations to the public.

“I appreciate the willingness to discuss,” Crank told the board. “D-11 spends a half billion dollars of taxpayers money and it shouldn’t be done in secret.”

Benjamin DeGrow, education labor policy analyst with the Golden-based Independence Institute, wrote a policy paper on the subject two years agothat concluded that negotiations should be public.

“We are talking about taxpayer money and the future of children, it shouldn’t be done behind closed doors,” he said in an interview.

Only six states guarantee open negotiations, and five others allow limited access, he says.

In Colorado, 42 of the178 school districts have collective bargaining with teachers’ unions. Poudre School District in Fort Collins is thought to be the only one that allows the public to attend negotiations.

“It started 15 years ago because everyone wanted a transparent process,” says Ellen  Laubhan,  spokeswoman for Poudre, the ninth largest in the state with 25,000 students. 

School executives and unions meet several times a year to discuss issues such as workloads, schedules, budgets, the price index, cost of benefits. There are also weekly resolution discussions between union presidents and human resources.

At the end of the year, when the budget is known, they negotiate compensation.

All talks are open to the public, and it has worked out fine.

“It all creates a much better flow  of information, instead of it all reaching a boiling point at the end. ”  

Locally, negotiators say closed sessions aren’t conducted to keep things secret.

“It prevents political posturing,” Cross said. “It’s a long complicated process. What could happen, like in other things, is that in the middle of public discourse the community takes positions without knowing the whole story and things becoming unnecessarily heated.”

Glenn Gustafson, D-11 chief financial officer, sees pros and cons in both approaches.

“There’s always the danger that if someone doesn’t see the whole negotiation process and then over emphasizes something not very important and runs with it. But on the other hand, these are public funds we are talking about, and there isn’t anything to be ashamed of that we are talking about in negotiations. We are talking about how to better childrens’ education.”

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