Teacher talks are not so cheap

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And, so it begins. After all of, like, 27 seconds of negotiations, the teachers’ union declared an impasse, and walked out of negotiations with the new Jefferson County School Board.

At issue, for the union, was the board’s apparent intention to break with the promises of the previous board vis-à-vis teacher compensation.  That is to say, after Jeffco teacher salaries have been frozen, or cut, for the last several years, the last board promised that part of the mill levy increase the voters approved in 2012 would be a salary increase for teachers.  This board has stated its intention to not feel beholden to that promise.

For its part, the Board, when it created its budget outline, did put in place $11.7 million, earmarked for teacher compensation. The particulars of how that money was to be spent were to be part of the negotiations, though there had already been some talk of programs tying pay raises to student testing data.  

I’m not entirely sure the union has the strongest leg to stand on, from a public relations standpoint. I’m having a difficult time picturing Mr. Average Joe, whose wages have also remained stagnant for the last several years, who has to pay more for health insurance than he did a few years ago, and who still doesn’t have many viable options in this sluggish employment economy, being terribly sympathetic to teachers who would walk away from the very early stages of negotiations with money actually on the table. 

On the other hand, this board did put out a community survey a couple months ago, asking what the community thought the right priorities should be. Teacher compensation was high on the list, and a resounding majority said that the district should not prioritize charter schools and option schools. Yet, one of the big-ticket items on the board’s initial budget outline was $3.7 million extra for charter schools. I suppose you can argue all you want that the survey answers were skewed, that a concerted effort by certain interest groups essentially rigged the results of the survey. 

But, ya’ know, you asked. Remember a few years back when conservatives packed Congressional town hall meetings to give feedback against Obamacare? So much so that most supporters of Obamacare ran away from the idea of town halls like my daughter runs away from itsy-bitsy spiders? But then they shuffled back to Washington and passed it, anyway. Remember that? You just did the same thing.

And it’s not like we’re talking about major reforms, either, the kind of things that the general public would really like to see us talk about. The money for charter schools is just to increase per-pupil spending to bring it closer to what the neighborhood schools spend. And the money for teachers is not to pilot innovative training or staffing models — it’s largely just to restore some of the salary lost by more experienced teachers.

In other words, when the general public looks at public education and shakes it’s collective head, well, I can understand why. On one side of the table is a team that seems intent on ignoring the feedback they asked for from the public, and on the other side is a team that has coordinated and staged a high-profile game of brinksmanship.  And in the middle of the table is well over half a billion dollars of the general public’s money.

One interesting side note from all this: after an impasse is declared, the terms of the contract dictate that all further negotiations must happen through a mediator, and must happen behind closed doors. So, if one side or the other had a vested interest in the public NOT seeing the negotiation process, then they just got their way. I’ll leave it up to you to conclude for yourselves who benefits more from that kind of secrecy.