Douglas County, CO: School District Role Model for the Nation

Get ready, serious school board reformers. You now have a role model.

Who would have thought that real school reform could start at the local level, rather than in Washington D.C.? Well, the mostly conservative Board of Education of Douglas County, Colorado thought so. In fact, the members of this board hoped to break the status quo and create new rules for public education.

According to the Denver Post, Colorado’s “Dougco” board is composed primarily of independent-minded conservatives who also happen to be bold visionaries--though that’s not how teachers unions see it.

First, Dougco decided to create a pilot school choice scholarship program that permitted parents to redirect a portion of district funds for their children to attend a private school of their choosing. Though the program was challenged by the ACLU, and ultimately found to be unconstitutional, the school district has appealed the decision.

Meanwhile, the Dougco board has found a way to disentangle itself from the teachers union. On July 3rd, with the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the union having expired on June 30th, board members unanimously voted to approve a pay plan for teachers that mirrored the offer rejected by its teachers union, Douglas County Federation of Teachers, a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Teachers will receive a 1 percent pay raise plus a 1 percent retention bonus, the latter awarded to teachers who signed contracts by June 15th, intending to return to their classrooms in the district in the coming school year.

The vote came after months of contentious negotiations between the Dougco board and the union. Following four years of pay freezes, the union sought a 3 percent pay raise, including at least 1 percent in an ongoing raise. With no agreement in sight, the board sought counsel in the Colorado Constitution, which protects its right to fix the salaries of district employees “without outside interference, encroachment, or entanglement” and to declare the collective bargaining agreement “expired and of no legal effect whatsoever.” The board made the 1 percent raise retroactive to July 1st and the 1 percent retention bonus effective with the September payroll.

Dougco school board president John Carson said, “We wanted to provide our outstanding teachers and staff with assurance…We believe that it is in the best interest of our employees to provide certainty in terms of compensation and benefits.”

The Dougco board also approved a compensation and benefits program for teachers, detailing salary, working hours, class size, etc., also retroactive to July 1st, which will “govern…the employment relationship of the district” with teachers through June 30, 2013.

Needless to say, union leaders are not too happy with not being needed in Douglas County, Colorado. They have sought the help of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, charging the school board with union-busting. “We’re going to continue to fight for a collective bargaining agreement,” aserted the teachers union president.

Carson notes that the board’s action “should not be seen as a signal that talks with the [union] have ended. We remain open to further discussions.”

Good for Carson and the school board for being open to listening to the union, but, really, what more is there to say? An employer, Douglas County school district, hired its teachers after providing them with information about the nature of their jobs and how they will be compensated for their work. It happens all the time in the private sector. No unions needed.

And, lo and behold, 98 percent of teachers have committed to returning to district classes this fall.

Moving forward, Dougco would like to use its newfound flexibility to make its district more efficient and financially stable. Board members hope to introduce merit pay based on individual teacher performance to replace the current system which relies on seniority and college credits. In addition, the board would like to offer differential pay to teachers with specialized skills that are in high demand and short supply.

Dougco would also prefer to no longer pay the salaries and benefits of the district’s union officials who have no teaching duties, or the substantial contribution to their benefit pension plan. These costs have been buried in the school district’s operating budget, allowing unions to keep the cost of union dues down.

And, speaking of union dues, Dougco wants to end their middleman position of collecting dues for the union through automatic payroll deduction. Unions particularly dislike this idea, primarily because wherever this practice has been implemented, they have experienced a substantial drop in membership.

So, the Douglas County School Board has made significant and positive changes for its school district and, most importantly, its students, by responding to contentious union negotiations, and an expired agreement, with common-sense solutions that are based on private sector, free market principles. The unions have responded by threatening to strong-arm Dougco with state intervention. Where have we seen this before?

Hats off to Douglas County School Board! Let’s hope that the nation is watching you.


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