IB-2011-D (September 2011)
Author: Ben DeGrow
Of Colorado’s 178 school districts, 41 have a formal bargaining relationship with one or more employee unions. Because Colorado has no defined public-sector labor law, the greatest opportunity to reform restrictive policies and interest group privileges comes at the local school board level. Recent bargaining reforms in other states show the fiscal benefits that may be realized from adopting this approach. The few high-quality academic studies of the question all show that restrictive bargaining policies have a negative impact on student learning.
The dynamics of union negotiations make it more difficult for school board directors to effect positive change. For instance, certain elements of a negotiated agreement may be off-limits to discuss or change except in years when the contract’s terms are set to expire. Persistence and public support are important to achieving reforms through collective bargaining. Board directors are far more likely to succeed in ensuring concessions if they take direct involvement in the process. Nine key opportunities for school district bargaining reform are as follows:
1. Open union negotiations to public observation. Transparent policy-making affords an opportunity to enlist broad support for reform and reminds organized employee interests whose interests they are negotiating against: taxpaying citizens.
2. End union payroll dues deduction services. Collecting funds for groups that finance local board candidates creates real and potential conflicts of interests. Suspending the privilege still allows educators the option to support a union through private transactions.
3. Allow union members to opt out at any time. Employees could be set free from tight timelines and onerous procedures to opt out of union membership.
4. Eliminate “dues equivalency” fee burdens. Non-union members in six districts must submit a written request each year to prevent a union payroll deduction equivalent to paying dues.
5. Stop using seniority to place teachers. Senate Bill 10-191 helps empower school boards to get rid of provisions that favor less effective senior teachers in deciding transfers and avoiding layoffs. Procedures like coin flips may be used to break ties for teachers with equal seniority.
6. Bring accountability to union release days. Many agreements allow educators tax-funded release time from classroom responsibilities to perform union business—including lobbying—a practice that should end.
7. Make unions pay for their officers’ services. No local teachers union should be subsidized for the extended leave time their presidents and other officers receive to perform union service.
8. Provide equal access to district systems. Honor teachers’ right to know by repealing measures that give union bargaining agents free and privileged use of school district property and communication systems, as well as exclusive access to events and information.
9. Explore alternatives to bargaining model. The example of some Colorado school districts can be followed by entirely terminating exclusive bargaining or other negotiation privileges, while rewarding teacher professionalism and welcoming teacher input.
Every one of the 41 bargaining districts can find multiple opportunities for reforms that promote good government, individual employee rights, and a greater focus on student welfare. Challenging economic times and heightened calls for accountable government make the case for prompt action. Opportunity awaits local education leaders to enhance flexibility, fairness and fiscal responsibility at the bargaining table.