CASTLE ROCK – Expected outbreaks of protest failed to materialize during the negotiations between the Douglas County School District and the local teachers’ union Thursday, but tensions were high as the two sides tried to write a new collective bargaining agreement.
Thanks to the school board’s decision to open negotiations to the public for the first time, the animosity between the District and the Douglas County Federation (DCF), the local branch of the American Federation of Teachers, was on full display.
During the marathon session at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, DCF leaders made it clear they believe the district is intentionally preventing an agreement from going through, while district officials cited many issues resolved during the negotiation process.
Union frustration erupted Thursday as leaders complained that the talks are running aground. DCF member Jed Palmer commented that “we’re ready to move forward” but that “[t] here’s really been a changed relationship between the district and the teachers.” This changed relationship, Palmer and other members of the AFT claim, is holding up progress.
Dan McMinimee, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education, disagreed with the AFT’s assertions. “I believe [the AFT is] here working just as we are to get to some kind of agreement as quickly as possible,” he said.
McMinimee cited many issues that were resolved during the negotiations, such as open bargaining, career ladders, and a memorandum of understanding for salary ranges. The current collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of June.
The biggest issue facing negotiators was the District’s proposed 1% pay increase. In order to fund the raise, the district wants to cut spending on various teacher bonuses, including lump-sum payments to retiring teachers, payments for earning additional degrees, and payments based on longevity of service. The district claims these programs only benefit a small number of employees, while a broad-based pay increase would benefit all teachers and staff.
Many other issues remained unresolved. The district is challenging the AFT’s practice of funding political candidates with membership dues collected by the district. The district contends most local dues go to political campaigns outside of Douglas County, while relatively little is spent on professional development of district teachers. The school board also wants to take union leaders off the school district payroll, arguing that those salaries should be paid by the union, not taxpayers.
Union leaders have accused the district of political motives. They said that the proposed restrictions on political funding are an abridgement of teachers’ free-speech rights, and Palmer even suggested that the board is only trying to prevent its members from being voted out of office.
Palmer also said he suspects a connection between the district and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that encourages school districts to use “union-busting” negotiating strategies.
Bonnie Betz, the district’s finance officer, said she has never heard of ALE C.
Union advocates said they also feared the relationship between the union and the district has been greatly harmed by the negotiations and that the school board is attempting to sever all ties with the AFT. District officials, by contrast, said they see the conflict as the normal disagreement that takes place during any negotiation.
But the tension was palpable Thursday. In a particularly impassioned statement, Kevin DiPasquale of the DCF stated, “I’m not here for philosophical beliefs. I’m here for the students of Douglas County Schools.”
McMinimee’s response was blunt: “So was there a question in that?”
Union members also questioned whether the district is as cash-strapped as it claims to be. “There is a strong sense that there could be mismanagement of funds,” DiPasquale said.. DiPasquale asserted that the district often transfers money from one fund to another to make it appear as if money is not available for school organizations and that the district’s budgets often change from one meeting to the next.
District Public Information Officer Randy Barber said those suspicions are unfounded. The school board, he says, strongly believes in transparency and all plans and expenses are clearly posted online. The complexity of school budgets can result in confusion and lead to mistaken accusations of mismanagement, said Barber.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office sent a security detail to the meeting, and though the police presence proved unnecessary, there was some clear animosity between the district and the union, as well as a a lengthy debate over what was accomplished.
Negotiations are expected to continue through June.