Dougco, union await arbitrator’s ruling

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.

See the documents

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.

“There was an agreed-upon ratified contract that they altered unilaterally without going through any negotiations.”
– 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.

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

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”