CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school district and teachers’ union leaders are waiting for an arbitrator’s ruling, expected by Aug. 15, on whether the union owes the district $165,000 in back wages and benefits.
Some school board members frequently tout the amount as debt in public meetings while union leaders say they’ve paid the amount required in their recently expired collective bargaining agreement with the district.
Unable to resolve the issue on their own, the two sides presented evidence during an arbitration hearing on June 15. The arbitrator, based in Oregon, is expected to issue a ruling within 60 days of that hearing.
At issue is which side is responsible for compensating teachers who’ve left the classroom to work for the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the national American Federation of Teachers union. As union staff, their jobs included providing training developed by the AFT for district employees.
For years, the negotiated contract between the district and the union stipulated that each side would pay half of the salaries and benefits of two union leaders – the union president and the head of the clerical or “classified” staff. In Dougco, the federation represents both teachers and classified staff.
In addition, the contract states the two sides will discuss each spring how to divvy up the compensation for other union employees. That’s varied by year but both Bonnie Betz, the district’s chief financial officer, and union president Brenda Smith agree the decision for 2011-12 was that the district pay 50 percent of the costs of two additional union staff.
In other words, both district and union leaders agreed the district would pay half of the compensation for four union staff members in 2011-12. Until June 30, and the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement after negotiations failed, those four were also district employees.
But the two sides disagree on the exact terms of that 50 percent deal and they differ on much of what happened next.
Dougco schools chief cites need for more “accountability”
According to emails provided by the district, Superintendent Liz Fagen approached Smith about changing the arrangement, saying she wanted to provide more accountability for taxpayer funds.
Fagen asked that the four union staff members report half of the time – the 50 percent paid by the district – to district administrators. For example, Smith, the union president, would report to assistant superintendents Dan McMinimee and Christian Cutter and work in district offices half of the time.
“I felt we needed more accountability for the district-paid portion …” Fagen wrote in a December email to Smith. “This is a concern that I have voiced for nearly a year now.”
Smith, in a recent interview, said that change wasn’t acceptable. Union staff members typically report to the union president and work in the union offices.
“She wanted union staff to move into the district building and be supervised and evaluated by her staff. I said absolutely not,” Smith said of Fagen. “I finally said to her, this is not what we’ve agreed to, this is not the reason why this agreement is in place. It has to do with the fact we work together on multiple issues.”
Smith said she countered with a proposal that the union pay 100 percent of the employees’ costs and forgo changes in supervision – but she said she emphasized that such a change would have to go through negotiations.
Fagen, in the emails provided by the district, doesn’t mention negotiations and says she’s disappointed with Smith’s response.
“It is my understanding … you would rather pay 100 percent than have your folks transparently working together with district folks 50 percent of the time,” Fagen wrote in December. “I find this disappointing …. however, I respect your decision.”
She also wrote that the district’s attorney, Rob Ross, “will be in touch with your attorney to make the necessary arrangements for a January 1, 2012 change.”
Union president says district “unilaterally” changed contract
On Feb. 6, the district billed the union for more than $237,000, or 100 percent of the union staff costs for a sixth-month period, from Jan. 1, 2012 to June 30, 2012. The district-union contract ran for a year, from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012.
– Brenda Smith, DCFT
In March, the union filed a grievance with the district, citing breach of contract, which led to the June arbitration hearing.
Smith said there was no verbal agreement to begin paying 100 percent right away and that the 50 percent figure stands because it was reached as part of the 2011-12 contract.
“Even if I wanted to do that (change the contract), I couldn’t because that’s not how negotiations function,” she said. “You don’t have a contract change mid-year … There was an agreed-upon ratified contract that they altered unilaterally without going through any negotiations.”
Betz, the district’s CFO, said, “We are absolutely acknowledging that last spring, we agreed to support 50 percent of four people.”
But, she said, “We agreed to do this with accountability associated with it …. They said no, they refused accountability measures.”
On July 13, the district billed the union a second time, seeking a total of $165,729.65. The bill acknowledges receipt of a July 5 payment of $79,736.48 and adds some end-of-year costs such as payment of substitute salaries for teachers attending union-related activities such as conferences.
Smith said the union will abide by the arbitrator’s ruling. Dougco spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said, in Colorado, an arbitrator’s ruling is not binding on a school board.