The leader of a free-market think tank is pushing a proposed ballot initiative that would require open meetings for school boards during collective bargaining or employment contract negotiations.
Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, said the proposal is not meant to be political, despite the many political implications that come with collective bargaining agreements between unions and school boards.
Tensions between school boards and unions have been increasingly in the spotlight in Colorado following a slant to the right on school boards in Douglas and Jefferson counties.
In Denver the story is different but similar because of the Democratic stronghold in the Mile High City. The issue isn’t so much about party affiliation, as much as it’s about a civil war among Democrats over how to improve the education system.
So-called “reform” candidates won four seats in Denver last year, further solidifying the pro-administration’s reform majority, thereby diminishing the voice of union-backed school board members.
The heightened political awareness in districts across the state spilled over into the legislature this year where lawmakers attempted to address open records pertaining to school board executive sessions.
House Bill 1110, sponsored by Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, and Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, would have required boards to record all executive sessions, or meetings conducted with attorneys present.
Unions and open government advocates raised the issue after Douglas County used executive sessions to conduct closed meetings.
HB 1110 died after several Democrats joined with Republicans to oppose the measure.
The governor signed a second watered-down attempt, Senate Bill 182, also sponsored by Hodge and Peniston, on June 6. SB 182 focuses more on executive session logs, requiring the log of subjects discussed, but imposes no recording requirements.
Enter Caldara, a political rabble-rouser who swears that his intent with proposed Initiative 124 is simply to promote open government. He didn’t see any progress by the legislature, so he decided to run his own proposal.
“For years we have been working on transparency and trying to make what government does more accessible to taxpayers and to interested parties, and since there are about 11 other states that have these open meetings for negotiations, we decided it’s about time that Colorado do this,” explained Caldara.
“If the legislature won’t open up government, then we believe the citizens will,” he added.
Caldara said proponents have begun collecting signatures. They will need 86,105 valid signatures to make the ballot. The Colorado Supreme Court has already given proponents the go-ahead.
Caldara said The Colorado Statesman was the first media outlet to contact him about the proposed initiative, but that he expects to generate more attention.
“There seems to be more questions and even a certain amount of distrust inside governmental decisions. We believe that sunshine is always the best disinfectant to whatever might be wrong in government and that interested parties, including teachers who have a lot on the line during these negotiations and taxpayers, parents, who have a lot on the line, should be able to witness this as any other public meeting,” said Caldara.
He pointed out that hiring is the most expensive line item for a school board. There is currently uproar in Jefferson County over the school hiring Dan McMinimee to replace Cindy Stevenson at an annual base salary of $220,000, along with up to $40,000 in performance pay and reimbursements up to $20,000 for personal contributions toward retirement benefits.
“Now that we’ve seen in Douglas County and in Jefferson County more interesting politics, people want to see what’s going on, and this gives them a good amount of ability,” explained Caldara. “We just want good government, good sunshine.”
Unions fear consequences
But unions are already expressing concerns with interfering with the collective bargaining process. Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, pointed out that closed-door negotiations often quell public firestorms that impede agreements.
Releasing certain information could result in bargaining through the media and public, which stakeholders often shy away from because it makes reaching an agreement more difficult, explained Roman.
“There are different ways of looking at it. One way could be that the process becomes heavily politicized because… there are different constituents, different groups, with different interests, and it can all become quickly a PR battle where it’s hard to find what’s truth,” opined Roman.
The union leader questioned the true intent of Caldara and the Independence Institute, suggesting that the initiative is more than just about open government.
“The mere fact that it comes from the Independence Institute, it does have a specific political agenda, and I think that instead of being really open about what they want to do, they come up with this PR saying open bargaining, we want to provide more teacher voice. Yea, right,” said Roman. “It’s a process that doesn’t begin with any kind of trust to begin with.”
The Colorado Education Association, which represents teachers across the state, is also raising concerns, mostly over a local control issue. The board voted on June 7 to oppose the proposed initiative.
“The CEA board is opposing this ballot issue based on the fact that it directs school districts and local bargaining teams to conduct all business related to bargaining in a public format,” read part of a communication that went out to CEA leaders and staff. “#124 includes all meetings with members of the board of education, school administration personnel or a combination that involves all parts of the collective bargaining agreement and process…
“This initiative goes beyond simple bargaining sessions,” the communication continued. “CEA is opposed to #124 because locals and their own school board should determine the best way to handle bargaining in their school district. A wide ranging state law is not helpful to members and elected officials in every town.”
Mike Wetzel, spokesman for CEA, said the biggest concern is over diminishing local control.
“We believe as an association that if a school board and a school district and a local association wants to do this together, and they believe that doing public bargaining is in the best interest of their communities, then we have no problem with that,” said Wetzel. “But where we have an issue is making it mandatory for all districts and all school boards to do this.”
John Ford, the new president of the Jefferson County Education Association — a member of the Colorado Education Association — said Jeffco already conducts open collective bargaining negotiations.
“We’re in this new world where I don’t think it’s a bad thing if we have that open dialogue, and that’s why we did it,” explained Ford. “We did it for the community. I think it was healthy… When you bring things to the negotiating table, I think they are important for people to hear.”
The Colorado Association of School Boards has yet to vote on the proposed initiative. They may wait until proponents collect the necessary signatures. But Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of CASB, said she expects her board to split on the initiative.
“What I feel would happen is probably we’d be divided on it. We’d have some boards that would support and some that would not; some that would feel that it’s local control and that we wouldn’t want that decision to be made any other way except by a local board in its district,” said Urschel.
For his part, Caldara expects opposition. But he questions the intent of any board or organization that would oppose opening collective bargaining agreements to the public.
“What are you nervous about? What is it that you don’t want sunshine on?” asked Caldara. “The only people who would be opposed to this are people who have something to hide.
“Whatever organization or organizations squawk the most about this, you really have to wonder why they would be against this,” added Caldara. “Please squawk loud because I think that only proves the need to have these board decisions in the sunlight.”