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Colorado Teachers Unions Have Some Very Different Takes on Open Negotiations

When I wrote a month ago about how the old momentum for open Colorado school district-union negotiations had returned, what came out at last night’s Douglas County school board meeting was something I didn’t expect to happen — at least not so soon. Ed News Colorado’s Nancy Mitchell offers up the somewhat surprising scoop:

In an unusual move, the president of the Douglas County teachers’ union on Tuesday asked school board members to open contract talks to the public.

“By letting the sunlight shine on our negotiations, parents, taxpayers and employees will benefit by seeing the open dialogue around our district’s priorities,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of teachers. “I hope you consider this.”

At the previous board meeting, a group of citizens with Parent Led Reform — following the release of their petition to open union negotiations — made the same plea initially. So pressure has been building for awhile, pressure for collective bargaining transparency in Colorado’s third-largest school district.

But last night’s development leaves this curious kid with two nagging questions. First, why would the DCF come out in favor of open negotiations and why now? Mike Antonucci, a guru on many issues related to teachers unions, has articulated well why union officials and district administrators tend to be naturally averse to the idea.

Maybe having supportive citizens allied with a supportive school board on the issue changes the dynamic. Maybe union leaders genuinely believe that transparency will give them a stronger negotiating leg to stand on. Maybe they simply realized it’s better to hop on the transparency train than to get run over by it. Maybe given the timing, the answer has to do with tomorrow’s legislative hearing on House Bill 1118, which would require school districts across Colorado to open union negotiation sessions and records to public observation.

So the second question is: What impact will the announcement have on the HB 1118 hearing? The Ed News story quotes the DCF / AFT’s big brother union, the Colorado Education Association, talking out of both sides of its mouth:

“Our members are very concerned about the potential consequences this bill could have on the success of negotiations,” Wetzel said, adding, “Opening bargaining sessions to the public could lead to harmful speculation and gossip in the community before ideas are fully formed, and runs counter to the ability of districts and associations to communicate openly and honestly and to find new, innovative solutions that will ultimately benefit the education of children.”

The CEA also doesn’t like the idea of a state mandate.

CEA is supportive of transparency,” he said, “however, the decision on whether bargaining is open to the public should be determined by the local education association and the school board according to the needs of the local community.” [emphases added]

In other words, CEA leaders think transparency is a bad idea, except when they support transparency, which is when the state isn’t telling them to be transparent. Please excuse me while I scratch my head. Still, some honestly might wonder why legislation is needed if a district and union can come to a mutual understanding about open negotiations independently. Besides pointing out that most unions are tied to the anti-negotiation transparency CEA, one might also add that a state law could have helped Douglas County reach the same conclusion without so much debate and rancor.

Tomorrow morning’s House State Affairs committee hearing might just be one of those occasions for popping up some popcorn, breaking out the candy, and listening in.