Proposition 104

Open meetings initiative could have unintended side benefit to unions

The conservative think tank the Independence Institute is no fan of teachers’ unions, so some observers find it interesting that an institute-driven ballot measure might have the side effect of giving those unions a little advantage in contract negotiations with school districts.

The proposed change in state open meetings law, which appears on the Nov. 4 ballot as Proposition 104, would require that union-district contract negotiations be held in public. It would also require that school board strategy sessions be public meetings. Union strategy sessions could be held behind closed doors because non-government entities like unions aren’t subject to the open meetings law.

“For school boards it’s a little like playing poker with your cards facing up,” said Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which opposes Prop 104.

The Colorado Association of School Boards takes a similar view. “Boards will be less able to develop strategies … negotiations will become increasingly one-sided,” predicts Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the group. CASB also formally opposes the measure.

Two other parties to the argument are less willing to make predictions.

Leaders of the Colorado Education Association declined to comment directly on the question of possible union advantage. President Kerrie Dallman made a more general comment, saying, “Proposition 104 contains some vague language, drafted without input from educators or school administrators. As a result, there is speculation on what this law would actually mean to school districts and employee associations as they bargain contracts at the local level. The unclear intent of Proposition 104 may cause confusion and frustration.”

Asked about the question, Jon Caldara, president of the institute, only said, “Transparency is good for everyone. Prop 104 makes transparency the default. If this is such an advantage for the unions, why are they against it?”

One outside observer, Kelly Hupfeld of the University of Colorado Denver, sees some possible advantage for unions. “In collective bargaining negotiations, like any other negotiations, you use the time in private with your team to discuss what your priorities are and what you are and are not willing to compromise on. If you have to tell your superintendent in a public meeting what you are and are not willing to compromise on, it obviously takes away your leverage and hamstrings your ability to compromise in a strategic way.”

But, Hupfeld added, “I’m not really sure how much of an advantage it will be. I think the initiative is more likely just to lead to less meaningful negotiations overall.” Hupfeld is associate dean of UCD’s School of Public Affairs and formerly worked as a labor lawyer.

Measure also expands definition of covered officials

The measure

Pro & Con

In addition to requiring open negotiating sessions and public board strategy sessions, Prop 104 also expands the kinds of district leaders subject to the open meetings law.

The existing state sunshine law generally applies to elected and appointed members of boards and commissions but does not cover employees such as school administrators. Prop 104 would change that provision for school districts, requiring that what the law calls a local public body “should include members of a board of education, school administration personnel, or a combination thereof who are involved in a meeting with a representative of employees at which a collective bargaining agreement is discussed.” (District administrators rather than a full school board typically conduct negotiations.)

Opponents fear that language could cover such things as a hallway discussion between a principal and a building union leader.

“We think it covers any conversation, any discussion about a contract,” said Caughey.

Caldara dismisses such arguments, noting that the term “meeting” has a specific meaning in current law – a session including a quorum or at least three members of a local public body.

Such arguments “just don’t hold water,” he said.

What else the two sides are saying

The overarching arguments for and against Prop 104 are fairly simple.

“I believe secrecy is the enemy of good government,” Caldara says. “Politicians aren’t going to let sunshine in if they don’t have to.”

Given that a labor contract represents the largest portion of a district’s budget, taxpayers, parents and teachers should have access to how contracts are negotiated, he argues.

The education groups opposed to Prop 104 argue that its provisions are unclear and that imposing a statewide rule infringes on the local control powers of school districts.

“We feel the initiative would create significant ambiguity in the [open meetings] statute, Urschel said. School board members would have to be retrained in how to handle the law, likely would have to spend more money on legal advice and “inevitably be subject to lawsuits,” she argued.

Ranelle Lang, a former Greeley superintendent who is campaigning against the measure, argues that school boards currently can decide if they want open or closed negotiations. “It’s something that can happen right now, so why do we need a statewide measure? It should be managed at the local level.”

Caldara’s response to the ambiguity argument is to note that Prop 104 would only change state law, not add a new section to the constitution.

“Even if all their fears are correct, the legislature can change it,” he said.

Campaigns mostly under the radar

Contract landscape
  • CEA locals have teacher contracts in 17 of the 20 largest districts. There are additional contracts in smaller districts, plus contracts for other groups of school employees. A small number of employee groups are represented by other unions. But most districts don’t have contracts. See CEA list here.

Bargaining history

  • The first contract between a district and teachers was signed in 1967 in Denver. Most large districts followed in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. A 1977 Colorado Supreme Court decision held that school district contracts, known as master agreements, were legal.

Both campaigns are modestly funded, limiting their activities mostly to speaking engagements, websites and some literature distribution.

The Sunshine on Government Committee has received $284,312 in “non-monetary” contributions from the institute, which primarily covered to cost of circulating the petitions necessary to get Prop 104 on the ballot. The committee has received an additional $20,100 in director contributions from the institute, money that hadn’t been spent as of the Sept. 29 reporting deadline.

Opponents, organized as the Local Schools, Local Choices committee, have raised $62,300, including $42,200 from CEA, $5,000 from the American Federation of Teachers and $15,000 Education Reform Now, which is affiliated with Democrats for Education Reform.

One of the opposition’s talking points is what they see as the institute’s lack of transparency in its campaign funding. (The sources of non-monetary contributions don’t have to be reported.) Caldara said the money came from institute reserves.

The issue has a history

There have been repeated legislative attempts in recent years to open district contract negotiations. Those Republican-sponsored bills have all died, opposed by school district lobbyists. (One session, discussion of expanding the requirement to all local governments also raised the hackles of county and municipal lobbyists.) Caldara said the failure of legislative efforts prompted his petition campaign.

Republicans and conservative allies like the institute push this issue partly because of disagreements with teachers’ unions over educational policy and because the CEA is a significant funder of Democratic candidates.

Will open meetings matter?

A handful of Colorado districts already conduct negotiations in public. Most frequently mentioned are Colorado Springs District 11 and the Poudre schools.

But both those districts use a process called “interest-based bargaining,” which is a more collaborative approach than traditional collective bargaining. And those district methods allow closed strategy sessions.

Open negotiating sessions are required by state law in Idaho. “I think the response has been very good both from the teachers’ side and the school board side,” said Karen Echeverria, executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association. “Negotiations for the most part are going very smoothly.” But, she said, the law allows closed strategy sessions for school boards.

Both Echeverria and Greg Grote, president of the Poudre Education Association, note that open meetings don’t necessarily draw public interest.

“I will tell you that nobody shows up for these things,” Echeverria said. “You might see a reporter occasionally, [but] there really isn’t anyone showing up.”

“We just don’t have people who come,” said Grote.

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.