When the Douglas County School Board formally cut its ties to the teachers’ union last week, it was not a surprise. Bitterness and frustration swelled between the two sides throughout a long, hot summer, before and after the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement at the end of June.
The acrimony is regrettable, and often serves to cloud the top issues for this and all school districts.
Our purpose in this editorial is not to side with the board or the teachers. Rather, it is to side with the students and, by extension, their parents and the taxpayers who pay for these schools.
Briefly stated, we see these key issues for all of us:
• To provide the very best education and life preparation for all Douglas County students.
• To do this as efficiently as possible.
• To strive for productive partnerships with parents, teachers and other community members.
• To do these things, and almost all else, in public through open meetings.
The board on Sept. 5 voted to halt the deduction of union dues from teachers’ paychecks and cease paying a portion of union employees’ salaries. Board members also approved a resolution declaring negotiations with the union officially over. Those actions were essentially symbolic, giving affirmation to what was already the reality as the new school year began in August.
The board, to put it simply, is ready to move on. It says it wants to reform the district.
“Any organization that doesn’t continuously try to strive, to excel, will not continue to produce results,” John Carson, school board president, told us Sept. 7. “We’ve been a great school district, but we want it to get better.”
Carson lays out three main points for reform:
• Providing more choice and competition in public education.
• Establishing a pay-for-performance program for teachers that represents a major overhaul in the way they are compensated.
• Offering students a “world-class” education.
As we see things, the district hardly seems in need of major repairs. Douglas County’s schools have been, and still are, among the best in the state, its students far exceeding the average on standardized test scores and going to college in droves.
Neither was there a need to break away from a teachers’ union that helped the state’s third-largest district build its stellar reputation. The district-union relationship was lauded as recently as last year in the run-up to a U.S. Department of Education-sponsored conference.
“The DCSD partnership with the Douglas County Federation (DCF) of teachers and classified employees is an outstanding example of labor-management collaboration and innovation that dates back two decades.”
Last spring, we applauded both sides for agreeing to make negotiations public in the pursuit of a collective bargaining agreement. Within weeks, it became clear this was a world-class standoff.
Following the breakdown of negotiations at the end of June, school board meetings have sometimes devolved into shouting matches. A journalist was kicked out of a school board meeting and cited by police. This situation degenerated into a sideshow and had to be resolved with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Protests outside district headquarters in Castle Rock have become increasingly routine.
These actions, the shouting and so forth, provide an unsettling backdrop for Douglas County’s children to learn. Are these the lessons that should be taught?
How about a lesson in civility, another in respectful use of tax money, another in board-teachers-community partnership and yet another in open and transparent operations?
Sadly, the transparency the board displayed in agreeing to open negotiations is no longer in view. In fact, the board conducts a closed-door session at each of its public meetings, for an average duration of more than 100 minutes, we have found.
Law allows for these executive sessions in certain, limited circumstances, such as when discussing personnel or legal matters. But the frequency and length of the school board’s private meetings raise concerns. By comparison, consider that the board for nearby Cherry Creek School District – historically one of Colorado’s best – had held zero executive sessions in 2012 as of last week.
We can’t help but wonder what is being discussed in those closed-door meetings.
We also wonder why reform has had to come at the expense of harmony.
Certainly there are real points of discord between the two sides.
The board’s vision includes a voucher program, one that a judge ruled unconstitutional and is pending appeal in court. This program, which uses public money to provide scholarships for students to attend private schools, is opposed by the union.
That vision also includes a pay-for-performance program that teachers say they have had little voice in constructing and say would devalue certain teaching positions.
The school district’s success to date was built by both sides working together. It is hard for us to imagine a more successful future with them apart.
The ball has been in both courts. As we see it, the school board is happy with the way things have turned out, while the union is left calling for another shot.
The taxpayers deserve to know far more than what the board’s decisions are.
Taxpayers deserve to know how board members reached the decisions and where each stood in making those decisions. In addition to better serving the community through public dealings, such information will be invaluable to taxpayers the next time they mark their ballots.
Think of it:
• Civil discourse by the board, teachers and the community.
• Constantly improving schools to better prepare students for life afterward.
• Spending taxpayers’ money as efficiently as possible.
• Doing all of this in public to enable the community to monitor how its schools – they are the public’s schools, not the board’s schools, after all – are being operated.
This is a good time – a very good time – to start.
What are the board members talking about in these executive, closed-to-the public, sessions?
You can’t find out. It’s a secret. Even though you are footing the bills.