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Open Contract Negotiations a Calculated Gamble in Douglas County

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The second round of public negotiations between the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers is set for tomorrow in Castle Rock. The surprising request for open contract discussions by the union, which has represented Douglas County teachers for more than forty years, constitutes a calculated gamble that public scrutiny will convince parents and taxpayers that any stalemate which develops down the road is the sole responsibility of an intransigent administration, aided and abetted by an extremist majority on the Douglas school board. Their initial meeting, held two weeks ago, offered a lesson in Kabuki theatrics as each side carefully staked out the issues they wish to see resolved. Why this conflict is occurring in a school district generally acknowledged as one of the best in Colorado is a fascinating case study of political ideology in conflict with actual results.

The extraordinary residential growth which has placed Douglas among the fastest growing counties in the nation for more than a decade, is in large part attributable to the quality of its schools. Parents have flocked to the quasi-rural developments that blanket the county's gently rolling hills in order to guarantee their kids a leg up on admission to premier college programs. The Douglas County Federation of Teachers, affiliated with the progressive American Federation of Teachers, has not been a knuckle-dragging mob of Neanderthal goons. To the contrary, they were the first teachers union in Colorado to negotiate a pay for performance plan that rewarded academic results nearly twenty years ago. Since the introduction of CSAP testing, Douglas County schools consistently score well above state averages. Although district-to-district comparisons are difficult to make, Douglas County schools are regarded as among the very best in the state. This excellence has been a prime economic generator for the county.

Nonetheless, voters elected school board members convinced that Douglas County's public educators were producing mediocre results, costing taxpayers too much money, and, that these perceived failings were the direct responsibility of the teachers union. They attempted to launch a voucher program that would permit parents to flee the public schools for private academies and religious programs. That initiative is now snarled in the courts, but it hasn't slowed the Board majority's desire to reshape Douglas County schools. They seem have trained their sights on dismantling the union that has worked cooperatively with parents and students for years.

The Board has also clamped down on budget expenditures, denying scheduled raises during the past four years while allowing class sizes to balloon to 40 or more students in the district's middle and high schools. This has occurred despite an apparent cash surplus, the size of which has become a matter of bitter dispute. And still, each year another two or three thousand students pour into this expanding system. Among the issues the administration proposes to negotiate is the phasing out of salary increases for teachers who earn advanced degrees, as well as any longevity bonuses. It wants to cease collecting union dues from teachers' paychecks, a service for which it is currently reimbursed. And it wants to severely curtail the union's ability to communicate with their members.

The Douglas County Federation's proposals, by contrast, are largely focused on improving working conditions for teachers, as well as strengthening programs that will benefit student outcomes. This includes a readiness to adopt an entirely new compensation matrix that rewards advancement along a well defined "career ladder" that will replace the existing pay for performance system and link salary directly to academic results in the classroom. The Republican voters of Douglas County are also the Republican parents of the students that fill Douglas County classrooms. Many of them must be wondering why the current Board is hellbent to fix a system that appears to be working well. By forcing their contract negotiations into public view, the union is hoping that taxpayers will embrace common sense and curb the anti-government fanaticism of a Board that prefers to score political points at the expense of their children's education. Time will tell if that was a smart move.