Union tries to find fit in district

Douglas County Federation lost ability to negotiate with district in 2012

Posted 12/6/15

A teachers’ union has not participated in collective-bargaining negotiations with the Douglas County School District since 2012, but for some teachers, it still pays to be a member.

“The main reason I am a union member and support the union …

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Union tries to find fit in district

Douglas County Federation lost ability to negotiate with district in 2012

Posted

A teachers’ union has not participated in collective-bargaining negotiations with the Douglas County School District since 2012, but for some teachers, it still pays to be a member.

“The main reason I am a union member and support the union is very simple,” said Kelli Eastmond, a kindergarten teacher at Arrowwood Elementary in Highlands Ranch. “No one else has my back. No one else will fight for me. With all that is going on in this district, I need someone who supports me and is taking care of me and my best interest.”

The previous collective-bargaining agreement between the school district and the Douglas County Federation had been in place in various forms for 47 years before it expired after negotiations failed in 2012. Until then, the union and district had enjoyed a relationship that was acclaimed nationally for its collaboration and willingness to work together, helping produce one of the nation’s first pay-for-performance programs in 1994.

But the 2009 election of a conservative school board, which saw unions as serving national political interests rather than focusing on local teachers’ issues and development, eventually led to the collapse of that relationship in 2012.

Although some incumbent board members who lost their bids for re-election in November brought up the union issue in the recent election,the union said it played no active role in the election. According to the Colorado secretary of state’s database, it did not directly contribute to any campaign.

“The teachers’ union and collective bargaining agreement have become a distraction for the Douglas County School District,” said Anne-Marie Lemieux, who was elected to the board after defeating former president Kevin Larsen. “There is no plan to bring back a CBA” (collective bargaining agreement).

Moving forward, Lemieux said the district needs to work on creating an environment of trust and mutual respect between teachers and the administration.

What the union does today

For the past three years, the union’s role in Douglas County has diminished, with the number of members dropping from more than 70 percent in 2012 to 50 percent of the district’s 3,500 teachers in 2015.

But although it no longer serves as a collective-bargaining agent, the union’s other roles remain much the same.

“We do all the same things we used to do,” said Courtney Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation. “The one big difference, obviously, since 2012, is that we don’t negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement since the school board decided to let it expire. That would be the only piece that’s a big difference.”

The DCF provides teachers with ongoing training and advisement as well as legal counsel if needed, Smith said. It also brings in teachers who are rated as highly effective and have mastered the teacher-evaluation system to work with less experienced ones.

“The district administration’s continued refusal to focus on what is important for students and to treat their employees fairly has increased the need for our organization,” Smith said. “We are supporting members each and every day, even without a CBA.”

But without the ability to negotiate, board member Doug Benevento said he doesn’t see the purpose of having a union.

“There’s no reason to have a union unless they get to go behind closed doors and negotiate a union wage scale for teachers,” he said.

Why negotiations ended

The district allowed the contract with DCF to expire because of concerns that only a small portion of union dues were going to teacher training and resources and that larger portions of the money collected were used to pay union employees and leadership as well as support political lobbying, according Benevento.

“If you follow the money, it goes to Washington, D.C.,” Benevento said.

Smith said that although a portion of teacher dues does go to the national organization, the American Federation of Teachers, and the local organization AFT Colorado, the union does not support politics or politicians.

Money from dues does fund the local DCF office, which includes professional coaching, legal bills and specialized help for teachers.

A separate fund is set up for members who wish to contribute to political causes separately from dues.

“No matter how many times we have explained that to some school board members,” Smith said, “they refuse to internalize it, mainly because it doesn’t fit their false rhetoric about the big, bad, evil DCF union sending millions in dues money to Washington, D.C., to support liberal causes and candidates.”

Smith also serves as the president of AFT Colorado.

Former district principal David Ray, who was recently elected to the board of education, said the board should be willing to sit down with any organization that represents half of its teachers.

“I believe a gross disservice to our employees has been committed when refusing to interact with an organization in which 50 percent of our teacher population are members,” Ray said. “This does not mean that decision-making should be controlled by any organized group, but rather that we make better decisions when we consider all perspectives. My hope is that we can return to focusing our conversations on what is best for students, and allow all voices to be heard for our students’ sake.”

Kendra Gish, a teacher at Legend High School, said having acollective-bargaining agreement gives teachers the opportunity to advocate for their students by helping to limit class sizes and a teacher’s student load.

“By giving teachers a CBA, a district shows teachers they value them and their opinions,” Gish said. “Without a CBA, rules and regulations can be changed at any time without notice. Class sizes can be increased along with student loads, sick leave can be removed, pensions eliminated, teachers’ raises denied. These are all crucial elements to maintaining a positive working environment where teachers feel valued.”

Arguments against a union often point to protection of underperforming teachers. However, Gish said this is not accurate in the case of Douglas County.

“Most people think the union is designed to protect bad teachers, but that’s not true,” Gish said. “The state of Colorado has not had tenure for over 18 years, therefore limiting the union’s ability to protect bad teachers. Although the union does help to protect teachers’ and, in turn, students’ rights, it does not protect those teachers who are deemed less than par.”

National perspective

The American Federation of Teachers represents 1.6 million teachers and administrators nationwide.

According to AFT national representative David Stylianou, the union has faced opposition in conservative areas around the country.

“There is a nationally coordinated agenda to weaken the voices of working people across the country,” Stylianou said. “One way they do this is by attacking collective bargaining rights, which weakens our ability to work together to bargain for decent wages, benefits and safe working conditions.”

When educators are under attack, the answer is to stick together and continue to speak with one voice, Stylianou said.

“Just because you lose a contract doesn’t mean you lose your union, your collective voice, or your ability to advocate for your profession and your students,” Stylianou said.

Is there a way forward?

In 2014, then-board president Larsen and Benevento sent a letter to Smith and the DCF outlining non-negotiable conditions the union would need to meet to re-establish talks with the district.

These included: No direct or indirect monetary contributions in Douglas County school board races, a prohibition on teacher dues being spent on anything but professional development for teachers, support for paying teachers based on performance and no district money going toward paying union leadership. In addition, the union should provide its own retirement or benefits for its leadership and employees, instead of relying on the state retirement and other government programs.

Smith said DCF is open to new negotiations with the district, but has little interest in revisiting collective bargaining under the current administration.

“We’ve never not wanted to sit down with the district. They are the ones that ended that relationship,” Smith said. “I would sit down with anyone who would want to sit down and hear what actually is the truth from employees.”

For any conversation to occur, Benevento said the union would have to agree to the non-negotiable points in the letter and prove why the organization is needed by the district and its teachers.

“They would have to concede those points and explain their value to the district,” Benevento said. “That’s what they need to do to regain credibility in the district.”

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