For the first time in recent history, Denver Public Schools has declared an impasse in ongoing negotiations with the teachers union over a contract governing teacher pay, workload and more.
The declaration means the two sides, which have been bargaining since January, will continue negotiations but with the aid of a mediator. In the past, DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have mutually agreed to mediation without one side having to call an impasse to trigger it, said DPS deputy general counsel and lead negotiator Michelle Berge.
But this year, the union refused. DCTA wanted to keep negotiations as public as possible and avoid private meetings with mediators, said DCTA deputy executive director Corey Kern.
In 2014, Colorado voters approved a change to state law that requires contract negotiations between school districts and employee groups to be open to the public. The Denver teachers union has been taking advantage of the public sessions, inviting teachers to attend and talk to negotiators about their experiences and how various proposals would affect them.
Union leaders see the impasse as a way to silence that voice. Their belief stems in part from the fact that the district wants to use a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which helps resolve collective bargaining disputes free of charge.
Although the bargaining sessions would still be public, the mediator could meet with each side separately in private to help them craft proposals, a spokesman for the service said.
That’s not true public bargaining, Kern said.
He said it’s been DCTA’s experience that “the two parties spend most of the time in two rooms apart and the mediator is shuttling back and forth between those two rooms and talking about issues without the public present.” The two sides’ proposals would be shared publicly, but the public would miss out on hearing the thought processes behind them, Kern said.
Even though the district had requested several times to move to mutually agreed-upon mediation, Kern said DCTA was “blindsided” by the impasse declaration a day after a bargaining session that the union felt was productive.
Berge said the district decided to call an impasse because “a number of challenging issues remain where we’re a bit stuck.” Those issues include how much teachers should be paid, the benefits they receive and how they should be evaluated.
The hope, Berge said, is that a mediator will help the two sides find common ground. The mediator DPS wants to use is someone whom the district and union have worked with before.
“Those of us who are involved, we are deep in on this,” Berge said. “Sometimes we’re emotional. It’s tough stuff. A mediator is an independent person who can step above that.”
The current teachers contract expires Aug. 31. The two sides are scheduled to meet again July 24 at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School in Denver. There are two bargaining sessions set for late July and five scheduled for early and mid-August.