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Transparency and a Collaborative Mirage: A Tale of Three Colorado School Districts

A clever wag once famously said: “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what to eat for lunch.” Some other smart-aleck might have reason to make a similar remark about K-12 education: “Collaboration is district leaders and union leaders deciding how to spend taxpayers’ money.” Except that those taxpayers too often are left in the dark.

Education Week‘s Stephen Sawchuk recently offered up a glowing report on how the superintendent and then-union president of Colorado’s largest school district “teamed up to solve a budget crunch” in 2011. High praise for Jefferson County‘s Cindy Stevenson and JCEA’s Kerrie Dallman, but there is more to the story.

A critic in the Ed Week piece notes, however, that the process lacked needed transparency even as negotiators rejected the ideas brought forward by parents and community members. Two years of furlough days came that hurt families, while calls to ask a little more in retirement contributions from employees fell on deaf ears.

That reticent likely had something to do with anticipating what since has played out to the north in Adams 12. Last year, after cutting middle school sports and transportation without union protest, the school board there asked all the employee groups to pick up a little more of their PERA costs to avoid layoffs and increased class sizes. Everyone signed on except the DTEA. The union waited months to communicate this disagreement over PERA with the teachers they are supposed to represent.

As the school year began, the Colorado Education Association (CEA) then organized a loud protest of 400 teachers from seven different districts that ended up forcing a couple parents who shared different views to be escorted out by security for their own protection. Dallman, by then president of CEA, ended up looking anything but collaborative.

Yet ironically, an Ed News Colorado column today by Adams 12 teacher Mark Sass praises Dallman’s apparent collaborative street cred as the solution for the district’s current turmoil.

Yes, the same turmoil ginned up by CEA as the next round of union negotiations nears. While both sides gave some ground to accept the non-binding compromise recommendations made in December by a fact-finder, a majority of the Board is holding its ground on shifting the retirement contribution burden. They see it not only as a necessity in sound budgeting but also as a fair approach to parents and other employees.

Meanwhile, the union seeks to send a strong message to school boards across Colorado that they had better not mess in the least with PERA. The message the board should be getting instead is the one Adams 12 parent Joseph Hein — one of those who earlier had to be escorted out of a board meeting for his own protection — delivered: Please open up future negotiating sessions to public view.

That’s where the third district in this tale enters. Even further north, citizens in Loveland’s Thompson School District have secured a spot on tonight’s board agenda to discuss their petition requesting transparent union negotiations. (You can listen to Nancy Rumfelt of Liberty Watch discuss the grassroots push for open negotiations on a Tuesday radio interview with my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow.)

Though the legislature last year rebuffed a bill to promote transparency in school union negotiations, citizens keep bringing it up. Jeffco may have retrenched and shot down open negotiations in favor of secrecy (despite what the plain language of their union agreement says). But Adams 12 and Thompson both have the chance to take up the mantle as a means of promoting good government and fostering public trust.

That can happen when everyone is able to keep an eye on district leaders and union leaders, and see clearly whether or not they plan to have the taxpayers for lunch.