CASTLE ROCK – Negotiations between the Douglas County School District and its teachers union were often contentious during Thursday’s marathon session but salary talks, occurring as the night waned, appeared to be more fruitful.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, left, and Mary Whitney, an elementary teacher and union negotiator, at Thursday's bargaining session.

An audience of several hundred, mostly teachers in royal blue t-shirts, crowded into an auditorium at Douglas County High School for the first public talks scheduled after school hours. Shortly after negotiations began at 4 p.m., 32 people waited in line while county officials scrambled to check the building’s fire code for maximum capacity.

Earlier emails and social media exchanges suggested possible fireworks at the talks – an email from the county’s Republican party chairman urged attendance to counter “professional union organizers” – but extra police officers called to quell any disruptions mostly appeared bored as the negotiations crept to an 11:30 p.m. conclusion.

The feistiest debates came on stage, where 11 negotiators for the Douglas County Federation of teachers sat at folding tables across from four district negotiators. In particular, the two sides clashed over the issue of whether the district would continue to collect union dues from teachers’ paychecks, a service the union has paid the district to carry out for years.

Dan McMinimee, assistant superintendent for secondary education and lead district negotiator, right, with Bonnie Betz, the district's chief finance officer and district negotiator.

Dan McMinimee, the district’s assistant superintendent of secondary education and its lead negotiator, said school board members want to stop the practice because the union has used some of the money to contribute to Dougco school board candidates.

“We don’t want to be the middle man in the collecting of dues that end up being used to influence local elections,” he said, citing examples of union donations to candidates in the 2009 election.

But Brenda Smith, the union’s president and its lead negotiator, questioned that argument, pointing out the district recently agreed to continuing pulling dues from paychecks for the union representing the district’s transportation workers.

Joe White, a ThunderRidge High School teacher on the union negotiating team, noted the school board candidates supported by the union have not been those publicly backed by the GOP in the largely Republican county.

“If we would have endorsed them, do you think we would still be in the same spot?” White asked, referring to the current conservative board. “This is really a number one union-busting tactic that people use around the country and if it’s that, be honest with it.”

Ending payroll dues deduction?

“This is really a number one union-busting tactic that people use around the country.”
— Joe White, teacher

“We don’t want to be the middle man in the collecting of dues that end up being used to influence local elections.”
— Dan McMinimee, administrator

McMinimee said school board members, who ultimately must approve the district-union contract, have indicated to him that it’s not a partisan issue.

“We want to be Switzerland in regard to this,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the candidates are, we just don’t want to be caught in the middle.”

He also said there’s no evidence the union representing transportation workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, has been involved in local board elections.

Smith called it an issue of “fairness” and said she believes the district is discriminating against the teachers’ union because of its views. The issue, she said, is likely to be settled in court.

“We’re definitely on different sides on this issue,” Smith said, and negotiators agreed to move on.

But they also were unable to reach consensus on issues such as whether teachers elected to serve as union president could still be considered school district employees. In Dougco, and in some other districts, such teachers typically leave the classroom during their presidencies but continue to be district employees and then return to school jobs.

Dougco union leaders have agreed to cover all costs for such teachers while they’re working full-time for the union. But district officials are proposing those teachers not be considered district employees, which union leaders say would jeopardize their pensions and discourage union participation.

Douglas County teachers at Thursday's public contract bargaining session, the first held after school hours. Their blue t-shirts read, "I make a difference every day."

“The issue is the appropriateness of having a non-district employee being paid through our payroll system,” said Bonnie Betz, the district’s chief finance officer and a member of the district negotiating team.

The district also wants to stop providing the names and mailing addresses of teachers to the union, citing confidentiality concerns. Union leaders say they need that information so they can secure ratification of the collective bargaining agreement and send out contracts. While the union represents about 70 percent of Dougco teachers, all teachers are covered by the agreement.

Several teachers say those kinds of proposals lead them to believe the district is trying to oust the union, though district leaders such as Superintendent Liz Fagen have denied that’s the goal.

“We don’t care if teachers want to be involved in any union,” McMinimee said at one point during the negotiations session. “In fact, we think there’s some positive benefits to being involved in a union.”

It is clear that district leaders are attempting to dramatically reshape their 40-year relationship with the teachers’ union, which is similar in its current form to those in other large districts. Changes in Dougco could provide a model that other districts seek to emulate.

Salary proposals
  • District: 1 percent raise plus 1 percent bonus for returning teachers signing contracts by June 15
  • Union: 2 percent raise plus 1 percent retention bonus
  • Sticking point: District would phase out other compensation pieces, such as dollars awarded for more education, to fund their proposal

What’s next

  • Negotiations continue at 3 p.m., June 4, at district headquarters, 620 Wilcox St. in Castle Rock

Learn more

More progress was made late in the evening Thursday, after district negotiators wrote out a salary proposal for union members to consider. Union and district leaders are only 1 percent apart in their pay proposals for 2012-13, after the union scaled back its request, but the two sides differ in where that money should come from.

The district is offering a 1 percent raise plus a 1 percent retention bonus for all teachers willing to sign new contracts by June 15. They also want to add a day to the contract.

The union proposal is for a 2 percent raise plus the 1 percent bonus for returning teachers and no additional day.

Teachers, who haven’t had a pay raise for four years, seem happy to be talking about any additional dollars but union negotiators expressed strong reservations about how the district plan would be funded.

That’s because the district essentially wants to reallocate other compensation pieces – for example, they want to phase out the dollars given to teachers who earn additional degrees, known as the Knowledge Level Advancement increase.

District leaders also want to phase out the longevity bonuses that teachers earn at year 15 and every five years afterward, along with the extra pay given to teachers who retire soon after becoming eligible to do so. Those early severance packages were proposed by the district years ago as incentives for more experienced – and expensive – teachers to retire.

Union negotiators believe the district has the ability to provide the 3 percent raises without getting rid of the dollars for additional education and experience.

No consensus was reached on the figures Thursday but there were numbers to work with. District negotiators presented, for the first time, a plan that calls for decreasing those salary components over time.

For example, teachers eligible for the longevity bump at the end of 2012-13 would receive 70 percent of that amount, which now is $750 to $1,500. Those eligible after 2013-14 would receive 50 percent of the bump, which would then drop to zero.

The two sides are facing a June 30 deadline. Union negotiators have asked to extend the current contract if necessary but district leaders have refused. Unless a new agreement is reached by then, teachers in the state’s third-largest school district will be working without a collective bargaining agreement.