IP-1-2010 (February 2010)
Author: Ben DeGrow
For the sake of public accountability and transparency, Colorado needs more effective oversight of education employee association leave. Through locally negotiated policies, many Colorado school districts grant release time privileges to local employee associations. Teachers and classified employees are excused from professional duties to serve extended periods as association officers or to spend particular days performing various association-related activities.
The need to employ a substitute teacher can lead to degraded or disrupted instruction. In addition, taxpayers often also subsidize employee association release time. In some cases, the district pays for both the released teacher and the substitute. In other cases, associations pay back school districts a considerably smaller amount than the released teacher’s compensation. Although many school districts (and ultimately taxpayers) foot the bill for the net cost, little or nothing is done to ensure the underwritten absence serves basic educational purposes.
The most egregious documented use of school employee association release time occurred in 2004 in Fort Collins, when a taxpayer-subsidized local union president worked to organize a partisan campaign event during the school day, and even at school sites. It is not clear how often a similar scenario has been repeated in other school districts. But following an audit of release time practices in their state, Utah lawmakers enacted a statute forbidding political campaign activities on release time. The statute also requires local school districts to adopt policies to ensure all release time activities are done to benefit the educational program.
An Independence Institute survey of documented policies and procedures from Colorado’s 25 largest school districts strongly suggests significant lack of oversight of employee association release time. While some districts require administrative permission before release time is taken, only one district offered any sort of specific guidelines for the appropriate uses of association leave. No district requires association officers or representatives to account for the use of taxpayer subsidized time.
Because state and local tax dollars provide the bulk of school district funding, stronger policies at both levels should be considered to address the problem and end abuses, as follows:
• Clearly stipulate in policy that association release time shall be used to benefit the educational mission of the district.
• Specifically indicate in policy which activities are permitted and which are restricted for association release time on classroom days.
• Specifically indicate in policy which activities require reimbursement from the association.
• Empower school officials to approve or deny requests for association release time based on the terms of the policy.
• Require employees to document a basic description of their usage of association release time on an electronic system that can easily be accessed and viewed online by parents and other citizens.
The issue of school employee release time certainly is controversial. But policy makers should at least forge a consensus to ensure greater accountability and transparency in the process. For the benefit of students, parents and other taxpayers, school districts should adopt and enforce clear guidelines on acceptable uses of employee association release time.