Negotiations back on in Dougco

Updated 4:30 p.m. Tuesday – Douglas County School District and teachers union officials have agreed to return to the bargaining table Thursday, days before their collective bargaining agreement is set to expire June 30.

The session is scheduled from noon to 3 p.m. at the district’s administrative headquarters, 620 Wilcox St. in Castle Rock. This year, negotiations are open to the public.

District spokesman Randy Barber said union officials Tuesday morning requested additional negotiations sessions. District officials responded in the afternoon, asking that three topics head the agenda – exclusivity of the union, or the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, in representing teachers; compensation; and communications with members of the public.

Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County federation, sent a message Tuesday to members – about 70 percent of all Dougco teachers – explaining that she had again requested more negotiating time.

She also said that the federation is continuing its request for the state Department of Employment and Labor to intervene. Read the message to teachers.

Updated 3:30 p.m. Monday – The Douglas County School District has replied to Brenda Smith, head of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, by declaring “We are both disappointed and confused by your letter, but we want you to understand that we remain open to further negotiations if you are interested.” Read the reply.

Original Friday story begins here:

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s school board and its teachers union have a week to finalize a collective bargaining agreement or become the largest school district in Colorado operating without one.

Douglas County teachers at one of the open bargaining sessions in May. Their blue t-shirts read, “I make a difference every day.”

The latest exchanges between district and union leaders doesn’t appear to bode well for a negotiated contract by June 30, with both sides declaring the other is refusing to continue productive dialogue.

Leaders of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers this week asked the state Department of Labor and Employment to intervene in the standoff. Friday, spokesman Bill Thoennes said the department was gathering information and had yet to make a decision on the request. He said there’s no deadline for that decision.

Dougco school board member Dan Gerken issued a statement Thursday saying the board was “disappointed” that “instead of continuing negotiations,” the union sought the state’s intervention.

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“We strongly believe the issue of the Douglas County School District budget is one of local control,” Gerken said, adding, “To date, we have invested over 100 hours at the negotiating table … the union has ignored invitations to schedule more time.”

Brenda Smith, president of the Dougco federation, said she strongly disagrees with the idea that the union has backed away from the bargaining table. In a letter sent Thursday to teachers, Smith wrote that union negotiators made “significant” compromises in their quest for a collective bargaining agreement.

“Each time we made progress in negotiations, the Douglas County school board moved the goal posts,” she said.

“Unfortunately,” she also wrote, “the new leadership of the district has made it clear they no longer have any intention of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the organization to which more than 70 percent of its teachers belong.”

The stall comes during the first open contract negotiations between the district and the union in 40 years. The first open session was held April 11, followed by public meetings in May and June, with a final session on June 8. No additional talks are scheduled, though the district’s lead negotiator, Assistant Superintendent Dan McMinimee, has told union leaders he can be available next week.

Pay is a point of contention, with the two sides separated by 1 percent. The district offered 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. Union leaders also weren’t happy about, but agreed to, a district plan to phase out other teacher compensation pieces – such as raises earned for additional education – to fund the district’s pay offer.

But other points of dispute have generated more heat than the pay issue. For example, the district no longer wants to collect union dues from teacher paychecks – something it’s been paid by the union to do for many years.

And the district wants to change contract language that describes the union as “the exclusive” bargaining agent for teachers. Instead, the federation, a chapter of the national American Federation of Teachers, would simply be “a” bargaining agent.

“To be clear, we are asking for choice for our teachers … you are asking for a monopoly,” McMinimee wrote to Smith on June 12.

Wrong, Smith responded Thursday.

“Exclusivity for a union with majority support is not a monopoly, it is democracy,” she wrote. “It is order rather than chaos. It allows employees to select their representative freely, without coercion from the employer. It allows them to amplify their voice through collective action under our constitutionally protected right to freedom of association.

“Without it, under current Colorado labor laws, the employer would be free to discriminate among employees to divide and conquer them … We will not agree to it.”

At 63,000 students, Dougco is the state’s third-largest school district. It is also the only large district represented by the AFT. Most districts in Colorado, including Jefferson County, Denver, Cherry Creek and Adams 12-Five Star, are represented by chapters of the National Education Association.

It’s unclear what impact the lack of a collective bargaining agreement might have in Dougco. As of last Friday, the June 15 deadline by which the district required teachers to return individual contracts and receive a 1 percent retention bonus, only 51 of the district’s 2,979 teachers had not signed on to return for another year.

Those individual contracts don’t specify compensation for 2012-13, simply guaranteeing the teacher will not be paid less and leaving open the possibility negotiations will continue, said district spokesman Randy Barber.

If no collective bargaining agreement is reached before students return in the fall, “The majority of teacher have signed contracts and we expect school will continue as usual,” Barber said.

Dougco has yet to reply to the union’s request for state intervention. Such a request from a teachers’ union is unusual but not unprecedented. In 2008, the Denver teachers association asked Don Mares, then executive director of the labor and employment department, to intervene in a contract dispute with former DPS Superintendent and now U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado.

Mares declined.

“While it is clear that disagreement exists between the parties, at this point I do not believe that the dispute affects the public interest,” Mares said.

Kerrie Dallman, recently elected president of the Colorado Education Association after serving as head of the Jefferson County teachers’ union, said, in general, working without a collective bargaining agreement means teachers would be working solely under district and board policy.

“Both can be changed unilaterally,” Dallman said, although she noted district leaders might have to hold a public reading or two of the new policy before voting to implement the change.

For example, “the board and district would not be contractually obligated to discuss a proposed decrease or increase in pay with the employees or their representatives,” she said. The same goes for the length of the school day or the school year.

“The teachers’ voices can be totally left out of any discussion on curriculum, teacher accountability and performance,” Dallman said, adding, “It is unfortunate that the Douglas County school board is seeking to silence the voices of their highly trained and experienced professionals.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.