Colorado

Should union negotiations be public?

COLORADO SPRINGS – Melinda Lawson’s fingers flew across the keyboard of her laptop as she listened intently to the negotiations, but she wasn’t satisfied with what she heard.

She was typing every word said during the bargaining session between the Colorado Springs Education Association and the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education. Partially because of a complaint filed by her husband, this specially-scheduled session was open to public scrutiny Friday.

Tom Strand, president of the D-11 school board, said he hoped the open session might lead to the Lawsons dropping their complaint, but Melinda Lawson said Monday that was not the case.

“It did not satisfy me,” she said. “We have not had a chance to discuss it with our attorney. But I think it’s going to continue.”

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Chad Lawson’s lawsuit, filed against the school district in March, is just the latest action in the debate over whether contract negotiations between the teachers union and the 29,500-student district serving the core Springs city should be open to the public.

For decades, annual contract talks between the two sides have been held behind closed doors – standard practice in most Colorado school districts.

But this year, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity and others begin publicly calling for the talks to be open. On March 9, when the district and union met in closed session, some two dozen protesters picketed outside. Hundreds of others have called or e-mailed school board members, who voted to ask the union to collectively bargain in public – union leaders have declined.

Lawson’s complaint, and the protesters, assert the district violated provisions of the legally-binding master agreement with the teachers’ union, which requires a public meeting at the start of the bargaining process.

Strand acknowledged the legal action was a reason the public session was held Friday. The board and CSEA representatives wrangled over an agenda for two weeks, he said, and finally agreed last week on details.

For all the brouhaha over public vs. closed meetings, the scheduled 12-hour session only found a handful of people present at any one time. About 65 people attended throughout the day. Attendance peaked at 22 in mid-afternoon.

“We are just fulfilling the requirements,” Strand said.

Teachers union: ‘Nothing to hide’

Confusion because all 19 provisions of the master agreement are up for renewal this year may have led to the failure to hold a public hearing, Strand said. The agreement, however, states that the initial meeting at the start of negotiations shall be open to the public.

No hearing date has been set in El Paso County District Court, which will rule on Chad Lawson’s request for an injunction halting any ongoing negotiations and requiring both parties to scrap what they’ve done to date and start over.

“Both my husband and I are products of District 11,” Melinda Lawson said. “I care. I’m a District 11 fanatic.”

She said two of her four children currently attend school in the district. She attended the meeting, rather than her husband, because he had to work.

The entire subject of open vs. closed meetings has ignited passions. Americans for Prosperity called on the school board to boycott negotiations until all meetings are open. The group helped organize the March 9 protest.

Jeff Crank, Colorado director of Americans for Prosperity, said the open meetings provision has already been violated.

“I went back to the board and suggested transparency,” he said. “Either open it up completely or don’t negotiate at all. They’ve already violated procedure.”

Crank said the Lawsons are not affiliated with his group, but may have become aware of the open meeting provision at the protest.

D-11 school board members voted to “encourage” open meetings between it and the CSEA. But the CSEA board voted to keep bargaining closed, except for the one meeting, and declined comment on the open vs. closed controversy. Because the entire master agreement expires this year, everything is subject to negotiation, including the rules of the collective bargaining process.

“We don’t feel there is anything to hide on keeping the negotiations closed,” said Kevin Marshall, president of the CSEA. “But we want to have candid and open discussions (in closed sessions). Besides, the agreement terms are always made public before the board of education votes” on them.

CSEA representatives would not comment about the issue at Friday’s public session but a March 2011 newsletter to members took a clear stance against open negotiations.

“Allowing outside parties access to bargaining sessions would open the doors to the same type of political posturing we’ve seen recently in the media,” wrote Tim Cross, CSEA staff member.  He said the “end product has been and will continue to be available to anyone who cares to see it.”

All issues on table in this year’s talks

Crank said an open process promotes good faith. “The union would do itself a lot of good,” he said, by opening meetings.

The Colorado Springs Gazette fired a salvo into the issue, questioning the entire concept of collective bargaining between public employees, which include teachers, and employers like District 11.

This is the first time in 16 years that all articles of the master agreement expire.  Marshall said the ground rules between the board and the CSEA have worked well in the past and there is no reason to believe they won’t work now.

Strand said the initial public sessions in past years usually take place in April and involved financial matters. The fact that the board is dealing not only with a completely new agreement, but with the budget as well, may have led to some “oversight” regarding open meetings.

The master agreement, however, states that initial April meetings will take place in years when only financial articles expire. In other years, when other aspects of the agreement need to be revised, the initial public meeting is to take place at “date agreed upon by the parties.”

Negotiations this year are based on a style called interest-based bargaining, which seeks to limit confrontations between adversaries and promote collaboration between partners. Bargaining is based on taking both parties through s series of steps that result in solutions to common goals.

Part of Friday’s meeting focused on an article of the master agreement dealing with teaching conditions and assignments. After listening, Melinda Lawson said she didn’t understand why all sessions weren’t open. But Strand noted the session didn’t involve the “sticky” issues involving issues like salaries and stipends.

The Colorado Springs district also is considering staff furloughs and increased class sizes as it deals with cutting more than $10 million from a $250 million operating budget.

The master agreement expires June 30. Strand said he was sure agreements on the more important issues would be reached before then. Among the issues being discussed are student discipline and teacher evaluations.

But the open vs. closed debate, with the ongoing bargaining, has some wary of making public statements.

“It’s too soon to say,” said Kevin Vick, CSEA vice president.

CSEA officials would not comment on the debate, citing bargaining and legal matters. The Lawson complaint did not name the CSEA as a defendant, only the school district and school board members.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede