Despite Top Notch Performance, DougCo Schools Face Union Lawsuits

March 13, 2013

Douglas County’s reform-minded school board is the target of labor union litigation

DENVER – Douglas County School District (DCSD) has been recognized as being one of the highest performing districts in the state, and tops among the state’s most populous school districts.  But that hasn’t prevented the local teachers’ union from filing lawsuits against the reform-minded board.

The litigation seeks to restore a so-called “sick leave bank” That “bank” disappeared when the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the district expired last summer.

Union officials are asking taxpayers to hand over $850,000 in “reimbursements” to compensate for unused sick leave days.  But critics have described the “bank” as an unfunded, unlimited liability for district taxpayers.  They argue that the district’s decision to replace the amorphous “bank” with a more narrowly tailored system for district employees makes more sense.

“DCSD instead replaced that broken [“sick leave bank”] system with a fully funded short-term disability plan for all employees,” according to a district press release reported by Our Colorado News.  “[T]his was a major piece of restoring financial stability and fiscal strength to the district.”

The lawsuit also alleges the district failed to give “priority consideration” to teachers whose positions had been eliminated, when new positions opened up.  The union argues that the district was required to give the former teachers preference when looking to fill the positions.

Reformers countered that the district is under no such obligation, and that the teachers’ union is “simply trying to reinstate displaced tenured teachers — teachers that were released under the terms and process of their own agreement,”according to a press release.

District officials have also noted that the collective bargaining agreement under which the union is seeking redress expired in June of last year.

The school board reached an impasse with its teacher’s union and severed ties with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) last year.  DougCo is now the Colorado’s largest district in which teachers are free agents, working directly with the district rather than through a union intermediary.

District officials angered union leaders when they ended the practice of acting as a collection agency for the union by deducting union dues from teacher’s paychecks on behalf of the union.  Supporters of the change in policy have argued that the district should not spend district dollars acting as a union middleman – particularly when union dues do not end up in the classroom.

The district has also riled union supporters by blocking the expenditure of tax dollars to underwrite union executives’ salaries and expenses.

In 2011, The Denver Post reported that over $5.8 million dollars of taxpayer money supported the salaries of union officials that negotiate against the public.

Although the union eventually entertained the idea of allowing the district to not subsidize union officials’ salaries, they insisted those officials must still be allowed to remain in the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA), the public pension fund for most state and school employees in Colorado.  But the district pointed out that if union officials are no longer school employees, they’d no longer be eligible for PERA.

Reformers have also drawn flak for ending the extended-service severance, described as a $37,000 bonus to teachers that decide to leave the district after 15 years of service.  In its place, the district provided an across-the-board pay increase for all teachers.

The final, and most significant changes the district made were the implementation of a market-based program for teacher compensation, as opposed to the old “step-and-lane” system that has been in place across the country for decades.

The U.S. Department of Education credits Douglas County with having one of the best performance pay examples in the country, calling it, “One of the nation’s first successful models of pay-for-performance.”

Douglas County has also been recognized by Governor Hickenlooper  for achieving significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes.

The savings from these reforms have allowed Douglas County to channel tens of thousands of dollars back into the classrooms, significantly reducing central administration from 80 full time employees to 55 and gave the district enough financial flexibility to grant teachers a 3 percent raise in 2012.

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