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Open Negotiations Should Be Consistent Practice

Jefferson County citizens deserve open and accountable government. If school budget and union negotiations can be hidden from view without majority approval from the Board, however, real accountability is lacking.

The collective bargaining agreement that gives the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) exclusive representation more than 5,000 district teachers plainly sets transparency as the default setting: “Negotiations shall be conducted in open sessions, unless both parties agree to the contrary.”

Nevertheless, the language is hollow. In recent years, while negotiations were supposed to be open, finding any information of times and locations on district outlets has been next to impossible.

This year it has become even worse. On April 11 at a joint appearance, JCEA president Kerrie Dallman and Jeffco superintendent Cynthia Stevenson publicly concurred that all negotiations had been closed. When board director Laura Boggs noted their public statement at an April 21 meeting, other directors reluctantly agreed to hold a formal vote. A 2-2 split decision (Robin Johnson was absent) has left open for interpretation whether citizens can observe sessions as of press deadline.

Outrage would be justified at any other exclusive tax-funded contract behind closed doors, especially if done without explicit board approval. Union contracts deserve as much or more transparent scrutiny. Citizens should be informed of negotiation sessions and allowed to observe them.

Six states have enacted laws ensuring public access to negotiations between government agencies and employee unions. Colorado leaves it up to local discretion. Only one of 42 school districts that practice union bargaining, Poudre R-1 in Fort Collins, thoroughly ensures citizens’ right to observe negotiations. Poudre officials have observed “no negative effects” from the practice.

A citizen lawsuit in Colorado Springs District 11 recently compelled a bargaining session to be opened for public observation, after a dispute about whether an initial closed session was supposed to be open. The status of other sessions is up in the air.

In March, Jeffco R-1 hosted a “budget summit” to decide how to address an anticipated budget shortfall. At the table were representatives of the school board, district administrators and employee unions. The watchful eyes of parents, taxpayers and journalists were kept out.

The summit framed the financial issues of union bargaining, but other matters also are open for discussion. Teachers’ union negotiations under way in April address existing special perks. The collective bargaining process has put government resources at the service of collecting automatic union dues payments. It also requires taxpayers to underwrite 275 unsupervised days of annual classroom leave for union business, which has been used among other purposes to lobby state lawmakers at the Capitol.

When asked why the summit” and union negotiations sessions initially were closed, district officials say a government facilitator insisted as much. It is perhaps most telling that school district officials showed greater deference to an outside contractor than to the people who fund their operations.

Good government operates in the light of day. It’s time to change how business is done in Colorado’s largest school district. The board should make open negotiations with employee groups a standing policy, and honor public votes regarding whether to close sessions on a case-by-case basis. Parents and other taxpayers need to be brought to the table, rather than treated as secondhand citizens.

Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank located in Golden.

This article originally appeared in Jefferson County’s Sentinel and Transcript newspapers on April 27, 2011.