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Filling In a Few Compelling Reasons to Go Watch Jeffco Open Union Negotiations

What a difference six weeks can make! When I last focused in on happenings at Jeffco schools, the local teachers union had taken its political spectacle from the boardroom to the classroom. Meanwhile, the school board moved ahead discussing its priorities and engaging the community in a search for a new superintendent.

It was good to see the two sides move ahead with open negotiations for the first time in recent memory. Now my parents, neighbors, and I can see the give and take of what’s going on with a giant chunk of a nearly $1 billion budget. But the big question to ask: Are the policies they’re advocating good for students?

With two of the seven negotiation sessions in the books, so far I’m having a very hard time seeing how the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA)’s top priority works for kids in the district. One of the two items the board wants to address is removing or limiting the current 275 tax-funded leave days for JCEA to go do its business (including lobbying at the State Capitol) during the school day.

The union’s top priority for discussion, one that’s leading to some real contention, is seeking to guarantee an extension of their monopoly bargaining power until 2018 or 2019. That’s a discussion for next year, when the whole contract is up for discussion per usual.

JCEA representatives say their members are fearful the contract won’t be renewed in 2015, and the board needs to take an extraordinary step to put those fears to rest. But the fears are based on rumors being spread through the union grapevine, that go right along with other misinformation that’s been spread about the new board. So the elected leaders of the school districts are just supposed to give in on this issue that has nothing to do with helping students?

One of my Education Policy Center friends, Ben DeGrow, went on the radio yesterday to help clear the air. He and host Mike Rosen discussed not only the state of open negotiations, but also the new Jeffco school board’s early record on transparency in general.

I’m always having to get after that grown-up policy wonk. Ben talked about the financial constraints on negotiations, caused primarily by rising PERA contribution rates and federal health care laws. And he mentioned the board’s priority of improving key indicators of student achievement, but he didn’t properly set the stage.

Leave it today to Denver Post guest commentator Tom Coyne, chair of the Wheat Ridge High School Accountability Committee, to paint a compelling factual picture that puts critics of the new board majority in their place. For example:

A reasonable question to ask is whether academic achievement substantially improves between tenth and 11th grade. The ACT is a national test, taken by all Colorado 11th-graders. In 2013, 55 percent of all Jeffco 11th-graders were below the minimum ACT math and reading scores for “college and career readiness.” For science, 61 percent fell below this mark.

Let’s be honest. The academic malaise is not specifically a Jeffco problem. (See the Colorado chart below from the Cato Institute’s new report comparing SAT achievement to per-pupil spending. The flat line of results below the ascending spending trend — that rhymes! — says a lot.) But Jeffco can help lead the way to higher ground. Thanks to Mr. Coyne for so effectively pointing it out!

With scarce public resources available to address serious academic needs, little things like the details hammered out in open union negotiations become all the more important. Alert and engaged citizens can make a difference by showing up: the next one is this coming Monday, March 31, at 4 PM in the Jeffco admin building off I-70 and Denver West. Be there if you can!