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Jeffco Leads the Way on Sensible Union Contract Changes

I’ve got to be honest, the Denver Post’s Editorial Board has kind of been knocking my socks off recently. First, they wrote good, thoughtful columns on the Dougco voucher decision and the abuse of democracy that is the Jeffco recall. Now they’ve come out with a new column praising Jefferson County School District’s new tentative tentative agreement with the Jefferson County Education Association.

No, the second “tentative” is not a typo. As exciting as this new contract is, it’s not officially a tentative agreement until it is ratified by JCEA’s more than 3,000 members. That said, I join the Denver Post in praising Jeffco adults’ newfound ability to “gather their senses,” and I sincerely hope cooler heads will prevail when it comes to contract ratification amongst union members.

While we wait for the results of the union ratification vote scheduled for August 21, it’s helpful to take a look at why this agreement is such a big deal. From my edu-wonk perspective, it accomplishes some very important things:

  • Prioritizes teacher performance in cases of layoffs or displacements instead of basing these decisions solely on seniority. Under the current agreement, displacement decisions between teachers of equal seniority are decided not by effectiveness, but by “a flip of a coin between the teachers involved by a disinterested third party.” Nope, not kidding.
  • Eliminates the district’s responsibility to collect union dues through its payroll system
  • Eliminates privileged union access to district communication systems and facilities
  • Allows teachers to select their own representation during the grievance process rather than forcing them to utilize JCEA for such services
  • Eliminates taxpayer-subsidized union leave time, including for union officers
  • Significantly reduces the length and intrusiveness of the contract. For example, it lightens the burden of some excessively rigid class-size formulas, which allows for more flexibility at the school level.

Those are just some of the highlights from my perspective. There are plenty more fun tidbits to talk about, but we’ll leave those for another time.

None of this is to say that the agreement came without controversy. The Denver Post column underscores the contract’s new 10-month duration (as opposed to the current four years) and compensation provisions as areas where there has been a lot of friction between the district and the union. And lest we forget, there was that pesky strike threat hanging over negotiations the whole time.

Still, things are looking good. If JCEA ratifies the agreement, there’s a very good chance that Jeffco will enter this school year with a leaner, fairer, more thoughtful union contract. And that’s a big win.

On the other hand, the commonsense changes made to Jeffco’s contract make me wonder what in the world is going on with other local unions. The Thompson Education Association practically dragged the district into non-binding arbitration last month—an endeavor that has proven to be slow, of questionable value, and rather expensive. Yet at the center of the Thompson controversy are many of the same issues on which JCEA, a much more powerful local union with a whole lot more to lose, has been willing to make reasonable compromises.

Last spring, both TEA and the Thompson’s own negotiating team appeared unwilling to tackle these issues thoughtfully as has been done in Jefferson County. As a result, the district still doesn’t know whether it will have a contract in the coming year, or whether even more money will need to be spent fending off further legal action if a better agreement doesn’t emerge. And the union appears poised to continue the fight, regardless of how disruptive that fight could be.

As Jeffco leads the way on collective bargaining reform, perhaps it’s time for the grownups in Thompson to “gather their senses” as well.