On February 21 a Douglas County grassroots citizen group came forward and urged the reform-minded school board to open union negotiations to public observation. Two weeks later the Douglas County Federation (DCF) surprised many by adding the union's voice to support bargaining transparency, as well.

Tonight the Douglas County Board of Education is slated to hold a formal vote on an open negotiations resolution. The momentous question is less whether transparency will be embraced but what the proposed parameters of open negotiations will look like. We will find out just how serious DCF is by the terms of any proposal they make to the Board and/or how they respond to the Board's parameters.

Will they call for something unreasonable and unrealistic, like also opening negotiating strategy sessions of district officials, but not union officials? It's the give-and-take of deciding school personnel policies and how taxpayer dollars will be used that merits public scrutiny, not how the individual sides formulate their strategies.

What the two sides are serious about are some key terms of the collective bargaining agreement, including the contentious issue of taxpayer-funded union release time. As Ed News Colorado reported:

Altogether, the district has paid an estimated $1.5 million in union salaries over the past five years, according to chief finance officer Bonnie Betz. Betz and Smith said that pay has been negotiated annually….

Douglas County Superintendent Liz Fagen has decreased the amount paid to the teachers union and suspended it altogether in December, she said Tuesday, saying she needed to show taxpayers they were receiving something for the money. Smith said the agreement is in the contract and lawyers are working on it.

Since some of the taxpayer-funded union leave is embedded in the contract, how the issue has been handled is pertinent to the tenor of the negotiation process moving forward. In a post I wrote last month for Publc Sector, Inc., I erred in assuming that the Board just “put a stop” to the practice. But a review of documents requested from the Douglas County School District shows there's more to the story.

Late last year district leaders proposed greater accountability from union employees for the portion of their time funded by district tax dollars. Superintendent Fagen sought agreement from DCF President Brenda Smith to ensure “the district-paid portion of the [union] FTE” would work in-house with the district and be evaluated for the use of that time. In a December 6, 2011, letter to Smith, Fagen affirmed from their conversation that DCF “would rather pay 100% than have [their] folks transparently working together with district folks 50% of their time.”

That interaction suggests a less-than-enthusiastic attitude about transparency. Union officials doubtless had their reasons, whatever they may be, for preferring to give up public dollars rather than subject themselves to some basic measures of public accountability. Inquiring minds then want to know: What other perks or benefits would union negotiators be compelled to concede under the bright lights of public attention?

Maybe DCF leaders, with pressure from rank-and-file members, have experienced a genuine change of heart. The proof will be in the pudding. The pudding is the details concerning the nature and conduct of open negotiations: What will the union propose? What will they accept?