[dropcap]J[/dropcap]on Caldara, the controversial president of the Independence Institute free-market think tank in Colorado, has succeeded in doing what many might see as the impossible. With his latest ballot initiative, he has pushed teachers unions and school board administrators into the same camp. The thinking on both sides of the traditional divide seems to be that, whatever Caldara is up to with Proposition 104, which aims to open school board-teacher union contract negotiations to the public, it can’t be good.
Caldara says he was forced to take his proposition to the ballot because similar measures have been shot down consistently in the legislature. He argues it’s a good-government proposal that makes sense given what’s at stake.
“Teacher contracts are the largest expenditure in school budgets,” he told the Independent. “Why shouldn’t the public be able to watch what’s going on in those smoky rooms? This is about our kids’ lives. Why oppose open meetings unless you’re doing something you don’t want people to see?”
Caldara and the Independence Institute have targeted unions for years as part of a campaign championing free-market education reform in the state. The Institute backed school board candidates in conservative Douglas County who won the majority there and promptly ceased recognizing the district’s union, abolished established teacher tenure, expanded charter schools and drew a lawsuit for providing tax-paid vouchers to private and religious schools.
Board candidates of the same stripe last year won majority control in Jefferson County’s district and the union and the board there have been battling ever since.
Indeed, one of the major complaints of the Jefferson County teachers and their union is that the new board majority is dealing in bad faith and behind closed doors. On Friday, Jefferson County teachers union President John Ford sent out a blistering critique of the board’s latest moves, saying it rejected the recommendations of a neutral fact finder, that it refused to honor previous agreements signed by its own bargaining team, and that it “introduced a pay scheme crafted in secret outside public view.”
It would seem that the frustrated JeffCo teachers union might benefit from a law that mandates negotiations be made in public and which are therefore open to greater scrutiny.
Yet the state’s teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, has joined forces with the Colorado Association of School Executives to oppose Caldara’s proposition. The coalition is called Local Schools, Local Choices and the teachers union is one of its main sources of funding.
The Hopelessness of Opposing Sunshine
The battle over Proposition 104 will likely begin after November — if there’s a battle at all.
Supporters and opponents agree that the measure will very likely win the support of voters and pass into law on Election Day.
You can’t oppose sunshine, at least not convincingly at the polls, concedes Bruce Caughey, executive director at the Colorado Association of School Executives and spokesman for the opposition coalition.
“Yes, of course, open and accountable government, increasing transparency,” Caughey told the Independent. “Sweeping statements on sunlight rightly have a great appeal to the public…. But that’s the perspective from 30,000-feet. There is real concern on the ground with how this proposal is crafted. Is one-size-fits-all a good idea?”
Caughey said coalition members are meeting in September to discuss strategy but he doesn’t expect them to mount any kind of serious campaign for the run up to Election Day. He says they’re bracing for a loss at the ballot box and then for the complications he says will arise as a result.
“The problem is that the results of the law are yet to be determined and that raises the specter of legal interventions.”
Caughey said the language of the proposition is broad and vague.
“Under this measure,” the final draft of the proposition reads, “school boards or their representatives are required to negotiate collective bargaining agreements in meetings that are open to the public.”
“The way it’s written, the measure could cover any discussion related to collective bargaining,” said Caughey. “It could undermine local boards that want to hold strategic pre-meeting talks. Does it mean parties can’t decide ahead of time for efficiency’s sake what they should be thinking about before they get into a room? Does it cover any employee conversation with human relations staff? This puts in place new bureaucratic burdens. It will create inefficiencies and drain resources better spent on education.”
Caldara dismisses that interpretation of the proposal as ridiculous.
“The word ‘meetings’ is set into the context of the state’s open meetings law,” he said. “It has a specific meaning, which is meetings where contracts are being negotiated.”
In fact, the proposition includes reference to the state’s open meetings law: The meetings it refers to are “any at which a state or local governmental body discusses public business or takes formal action.” Those kind of meetings “must be open to the public, with certain exceptions.”
Caldara adds that, in any case, the measure aims to make statutory law, not constitutional law, so it can be refined by state lawmakers. If the word “meeting” turns out to be ambiguous in practice, the legislature can further define it for clarity.
Caughey says Proposition 104 is unnecessary. He says community efforts should shape negotiations and points out that, as the law stands now, any school district can choose to conduct open contract negotiations, and some do.
“Yes, some, but not all,” says Caldara. “Why not all of them?”
Delighting in the Unexpected
Open teacher-contract meetings measures like Proposition 104 have come as part of free-market reform efforts elsewhere. Yet, Caldara and Caughey both say they haven’t looked at how contract meetings open to the public have changed negotiations in the 11 states where they are now conducted.
In Idaho, at least, the results of a similar measure came as a surprise to teacher union negotiators. They told the Independent that the open-meetings law came as part of a package of legislation proposed during what some have called the “union winter” that began after the 2010 Republican wave election, which saw anti-union governors and legislative majorities elected around the country.
Harry McCarty, an Idaho teacher’s union negotiator, said that, despite concerns and general wariness, the law has turned out to be a very good thing for teachers.
“The employee groups love it, and the reason is that our positions resonate with the public — even here in our conservative state,” he said. “The public gets it. Our working conditions have been gutted. We make reasonable salaries and we ask for minimal raises. Often, we’re merely looking to maintain the status quo.”
McCarty adds that the members of the public most interested in public school teacher contract negotiations are overwhelmingly public school teachers.
“Our members pack the rooms… and now they can see what school boards are trying to get away with.”
That effect of the law sounds like it will resonate well with teachers in Jefferson County, and beyond.
[ School bus boarding photo by Eric Havir. ]