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School district’s negotiations with teachers will be open to public

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Decision reverses longtime practice

By Daniel Laverty

In a break with longtime practice, contract negotiations between the Jeffco school board and the district’s teachers union will be open to the public this year.

“We are all about transparency and accountability for all aspects of our district,” said Ami Prichard, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, the teachers union. “We think it will be interesting for the public to see.”

School board President Ken Witt made the announcement at the start of the school board’s Jan. 30 study session. The board began the meeting by immediately going into executive session to discuss whether or not to make union negotiations open to the public.

“(The board has) consistently … discussed our predisposition and firm belief that transparency is paramount for the public,” Witt said after the meeting. “(The board believes) that association negotiations are a key component of education in Jefferson County, and we want to be as transparent as we can be with those negotiations.”

Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said the JCEA requested open negotiations in December. 

“The hope of the district is that negotiations are a positive process that is good for our employees and our students,” Stevenson said. 

Prichard said the contract between the teachers union and the school board requires both sides to approve holding negotiations behind closed doors each year. Both Witt and Stevenson could not remember a time in the Jeffco district’s history that negotiations were open.

“This is something that we’re interested in trying because we are in a very different budget climate this year,” Prichard said. “We’re not cutting this year, and we want our teachers to understand what’s going on. When (negotiations are) behind closed doors, people ask a lot of questions and want to know what’s going on. Putting it out in the open allows everybody to know exactly what’s going on.”

The Douglas County School District decided to make employee negotiations open in 2012. The conservative-controlled Dougco board has since severed collective-bargaining ties with its teachers union and has announced plans to pilot a voucher program. 

“We would like to work with this board openly and honestly,” Prichard said. “(The board has) said that they don’t want to become Douglas County, and we hope their actions line up with that.”

After the new conservative school board members — Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk — were sworn in at the Nov. 21 meeting, Witt told audience members he had no “intention of being Douglas County. We want to be the best ‘Jeffco’ we can be, and not (follow) Douglas or Denver county models, but Jeffco models.”

The school board has begun discussing the next budget and will approve the district’s final spending plan sometime in June. Dates for employee negotiations have not been set, but Prichard anticipates the talks will start in March.

In the past, despite calls by the press and others for contract negotiations to be held in public, neither the unions nor previous boards showed any inclination to do so.   

The JCEA and the Board of Education agree on multi-year contracts but still meet every year during the budget process to address immediate needs, Prichard said. The last contract was signed in 2012.

“We’ll be renegotiating the entire contract in 2015,” Prichard said.

To help offset Jeffco’s recent budget woes, Prichard said, Jeffco teachers’ salaries were frozen in 2009 and reduced by 3 percent in 2010. The 2013-14 budget restored the 3 percent.

“Teachers have not had any type of increase,” Prichard said. “That’s very concerning. It’s really hard to recruit and retain the highest-quality teachers when our beginning teacher salaries are so much lower than some of the competing districts around us.”

Prichard said that, during last year’s election campaign, the new school board members expressed support for open negotiations.

“It’s something that the people who supported our new school board candidates were very clear about in the election,” Prichard said. “With that in mind, (JCEA) decided to work proactively to make this a collaborative process that will work best for everyone.”

Contact Daniel Laverty at 303-350-1042 or Daniel@evergreenco.com. Follow Daniel on Twitter @LavertyReports.