In a superb column today, the Denver Post's Vincent Carroll raises a question that not long ago would have stretched the bounds of reason: Are these the final days for the Douglas County Federation of Teachers? With June 30 looming as the current collective bargaining agreement's expiration date, however, it is now a very real possibility that the state of labor relations in Colorado's third-largest school district soon could make a major change.
While a move on such scale appears to be without precedent, it stands as a legitimate and appropriate use of power. Colorado is one of 9 states where school boards retain the discretion concerning whether, and what sort of, labor relations to have. A full 137 of the state's 178 school districts live without an exclusive collective bargaining agreement. Douglas County would become the largest of the lot. As I noted in a 2011 Independence Institute brief, Tiny Park County Re-2 was the most recent to revoke an existing agreement:
A former teachers union president cast the deciding vote to cancel the exclusive representative status [the South Park Education Association] had enjoyed for nearly a decade.
For every full-time teacher once represented by SPEA, DCFT's bargaining power currently covers nearly 70. So in terms of scale, a change in Douglas County would be significant. And as Carroll notes, with the district's bold proposals to advance performance and market pay, as well as other innovative delivery models, they “will no doubt find the transition easier without a reactionary union habitually digging in its heels.”
In making classroom policy decisions, a wise school board still will heed the voices of its best instructors and those committed to promoting excellence within the profession (in addition to parents, who too often are overlooked). Further, as I have compiled in an unofficial list, Colorado law contains a substantial number of protections for teachers — whether they be union or non-union. And starting next month, Douglas County teachers may have more options for representation, in addition to membership. No matter what happens, teachers still will be (and should be) able to continue paying voluntary dues to DCFT.
While DCFT officials would not back down on demanding they retain their exclusive privileged power to represent teachers, they did indicate at last Friday's final scheduled open negotiation session that it would be okay to end the unethical practice of the school district collecting union dues. The Board has good reason to pursue the change, seeing as how government-collected union funds finance not only school board campaigns but also partisan state races (most Colorado AFT money comes from Douglas County) and a national political agenda that sometimes collides and conflicts with the Board's community-supported vision.
Interestingly, though, DCFT president Brenda Smith also publicly stated that the union reserves the right to sue the district over the dues collection issue. If the union is looking for a way to ensure the collective bargaining agreement lives on, threatening legal action (along with repeatedly disseminating misleading budget information) does not give the Board many good reasons to do so. One has to wonder what officials at the Colorado Education Association, which oversees the state's 40 other teacher bargaining units, think about this development: How many other school boards will get this same idea, and how can we persuade them not to?
Teachers in Dougco may demonstrate that, from most teachers' perspective, the union's heft through its exclusive bargaining status has been exaggerated. Back in May, during one of the more heated bargaining sessions, DCFT negotiators complained about continuing employment contracts the district sent out by email. Nearly 3,000 certified employees were each given 30 days to declare their intention to return or risk losing their job assignment. Thereafter DCFT officials have declared on several occasions that many educators were holding out to make certain a collective bargaining agreement would be ratified.
The deadline to return the contracts is Friday. As the Post's Karen Auge reports, 2,238 of 2,980 teachers (75 percent) had returned signed contracts as of yesterday. My own information request to Douglas County not only confirms these numbers but also indicates that
…at least 2 of the union's at least 2 of the teachers involved in the union negotiations have signed their contract (there were several of the union members, like Brenda Smith, that are not receiving a contract because they do not have an assignment for next year).
After all, the district no longer is paying for union officials to do union business with taxpayer money, another positive development out of this whole exchange.
Anyway, a former teachers union president in Park County, two union negotiators in Dougco. In the end, the union's power and prestige — embodied in local collective bargaining power — may not prove a worthwhile cause for which to stick out one's neck. And Douglas County students will do just fine, or even all the better, for the change.