Proposed ballot initiative would open school district labor negotiations to the public

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

Republicans in the state legislature have tried for years to expand Colorado’s Sunshine Law by requiring school boards to let the public observe collective bargaining negotiations.

Four such bills failed four times from 2003 to 2012. So now the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute is taking the idea directly to voters.

Proponents are circulating petitions for Initiative 124, which will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot if enough valid signatures are collected. The proposal is similar to HB 12-1118, which narrowly passed the House, then controlled by the GOP, two years ago but died in a Senate committee controlled by Democrats. It was opposed by teachers’ unions and school district officials concerned about the state mandating negotiating procedures now determined at the district level.

Given that personnel costs make up the vast majority of each school district’s operating budget, Independence Institute President Jon Caldara said Initiative 124 “is about transparency,” not local control.

“This is about open meetings,” said Caldara, whose free-market think tank is a member of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “Whether you’re a teacher or a parent or a taxpayer, you should be able to see what your elected officials are bringing up during negotiations, what they value and what the unions value.”

Under the current wording of the state Open Meetings Law, also known as the Sunshine Law, collective bargaining negotiations would be open to the public if they involved a quorum or at least three elected members of a school board. But negotiations may be held behind closed doors if that responsibility is delegated to administrative staff, as typically happens, and/or a smaller number of board members.

Initiative 124 specifically requires an open meeting if “members of a board of education, school administration personnel, or a combination thereof” discuss a collective bargaining agreement with a representative of an employees’ group.

“This doesn’t change what goes on during (a closed-door) executive session as far as strategizing,” Caldara said.

Only a few of the Colorado school districts that bargain exclusively with teachers unions currently allow for negotiations in public, and only the Poudre School District in Fort Collins seems to have a long history of doing so.

Critics of open collective bargaining sessions point out that contract talks can be delicate, and they worry that negotiating in public could make it more difficult to reach an agreement if it leads to grandstanding or bargaining via the news media.

The Colorado Education Association, which represents teachers throughout the state,  has come out against Initiative 124 for local-control reasons.

“CEA is opposed to #124 because local education associations and their own school boards should exercise local control and determine the best way to handle bargaining in their school district,” said CEA Communications Director Mike Wetzel in an emailed statement. “Some local associations already bargain in public and CEA has no issue with an association and school board deciding together that open bargaining is in the best interest of students and the community. However, a wide-ranging state law is not helpful to communication between educators and elected officials in every town.”

A similar stance is likely from the Colorado Association of School Executives, which opposed HB 12-1118. “It would be consistent for CASE to recommend that decisions about how to hold bargaining sessions should be left to local boards to determine,” Executive Director Bruce Caughey said.

The Colorado Press Association and the Colorado Broadcasters Association – both CFOIC members – have supported previous legislative efforts to open school district collective bargaining sessions.

Collective bargaining contracts involve “a huge amount of public money” paid to teachers and other school district employees, noted Greg Romberg, lobbyist for both organizations. “This would give the public an understanding of what the issues are and how the decisions are made.”

Initiative 124 comes at a time of political turmoil in certain districts such as Douglas County and Jefferson County, where conservatives hold majorities. Both districts, however, have experience with open collective bargaining sessions.  Before the Dougco board ended its collective bargaining agreement with the teacher’s union in 2012, the union requested that contract talks be held in public.

To ensure a spot on the ballot, Initiative 124 proponents must gather at least 86,105 valid signatures by Aug. 4.

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