Move To Replace Pact Splits Board, Union in Denver

By Ann Bradley — December 05, 1990 8 min read

With a Dec. 15 strike vote looming, the Denver Board of Education and the city’s teachers’ union were locked last week in an unusual battle over whether the teachers’ contract will be preserved or be replaced with policies established by the school board.

For the past 23 years, the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have bargained over teaching contracts. But, because Colorado has no collective-bargaining statute, such an arrangement is voluntary.

School-board members now view the 128-page master teaching contract, which has grown substantially over the years, as a major obstacle to achieving the district’s new goals for school improvement.

“There are a lot of trivial things in that agreement that serve to hamper the effectiveness of schools,” Edward J. Garner, president of the school board, said last week. “We just can’t deal with the problems we have in our school system by operating the way we have in the past.”

Instead of modifying the current contract, which expires Dec. 31, the school board proposed in August that the pact be replaced with a 58-page document that would become “board policy.”

Among other changes, the board wants to increase the influence principals have over teacher transfers, which now are determined by a point system based on a teacher’s years of service and level of education. Under the proposed policy, requested transfers would be evaluated principally for whether they would “result in the best educational program for the district.”

The board’s proposal also would give principals a greater say in which teachers would be hired to teach at their schools, require teachers to work a longer day, and remove the district’s student-discipline policy from the teaching contract.

Rae Garrett, the union’s president, called the approach a “top down’’ managerial style that is out of step with current trends in education.

“They are desperate to have an impact on student achievement and the dropout rate, and they have been powerless to do that,” Ms. Garrett said of the school board. “They’re under a lot of fire from the community, so they’ve chosen to make teachers and their contract the scapegoats.”

Instead, the association has proposed establishing a mechanism for shared decisionmaking by creating councils made up of parents, community representatives, teachers, nonteaching employees, and the school principal to govern the district’s 115 schools.

But the association’s counterproposal has little support on the school board. “It’s not something we feel should be written into a contract,” Mr. Garner, the president of the school board, said. “It’s a philosophy. The more abstract it is, the more creative” people in schools can be.

The tense situation in Denver--where the city’s 4,000 teachers have picketed, held mass rallies, and worn T-shirts with anti-board logos to school--is the culmination of years of bitter relations, Ms. Garrett noted.

“We’ve seen this coming for a while,” she said.

A somewhat similar situation arose a year ago in Colorado Springs, noted Gerald Gifford, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. The attempt by that city’s school board to adopt a set of policies ended with an agreement over a streamlined teaching contract that allowed management more flexibility. Teachers in Colorado Springs also had considered striking.

The Denver school board’s Aug. 27 proposal to the teachers, which has since been modified, grew out of discussions between Denver’s former superintendent, Richard P. Koeppe, and the school board over the summer.

In September, Evie Dennis became the first black woman to serve as superintendent of the 59,000-student district. She could not be reached for comment last week.

Mr. Koeppe and several observers noted that the district’s new leadership--combined with increasing interest in the school system on the part of Denver’s mayor, business leaders, and community members--presents an unprecedented opportunity to unite behind the new set of goals that has been established for the district.

The Denver school system also was successful last spring in gaining approval of a $300-million bond issue to repair deteriorating school buildings.

“The suspicion on both parties’ parts is easily understandable,” said Mr. Koeppe, now a professor of educational administration at the University of Colorado at Denver. “But they’ve simply got to get over it. There are a lot of things lined up now, and if they lose this opportunity, I’m afraid it will be ahead two feet and back four.”

In response to the board’s proposal, which was sweetened with an offer of $30 million for salaries, the teachers’ association revised its initial bargaining proposals, Ms. Garrett noted.

“We said, ‘Fine, we’ll present you with a new document. We can make it less convoluted and much clearer,”’ Ms. Garrett recalled. “In October, we presented them with a whole new agreement, and they have refused to look at it. They don’t want a bilateral agreement allowing teachers to be part of the decisionmaking process.”

The board has proposed that its new policies cover a period of three years, during which time no changes could be made without consulting the teachers’ association.

Ms. Garrett described the board’s proposal for negotiations under its new policies as “meet and confer” sessions rather than formal bargaining.

“They’re trying to play a semantics game by saying we’ll call it an agreement,” she charged.

But Mr. Koeppe, the former superintendent, dismissed the suggestion that the Denver school board ever turned its back on the city’s teachers.

“I don’t think the board has any intention of being unilateral in changing it,” he said. “Some member of the board has to sit down and talk with the teachers. It’s a long custom and tradition in the metro area of Denver and to stop doing it is unreasonable.”

Added Mr. Garner, the school-board president: “We’re not union-busting. If we wanted to union-bust, we wouldn’t offer an alternative to what they already have. We just want to have a workable agreement that will make this district run with everybody winning.”

Mr. Garner noted that the board took the unusual step of making a salary offer at the beginning of negotiations in the hope that it would be an incentive for the teachers’ association.

But Ms. Garrett said the board had “offered to destroy the salary schedule” by proposing large increases for beginning teachers, modest increases for veteran teachers, and no increases for teachers in the middle of the schedule.

The association is asking for across-the-board annual raises of 9 percent, 7 percent, and 7 percent over the three-year agreement. The teachers’ last raises averaged 1.5 percent.

The bargaining sessions have been conducted in public, an arrangement Mr. Garner said was agreed on to avoid communications problems that have plagued negotiations in Denver in the past. But the talks broke down in October.

The teachers’ union has declared an impasse and has asked for the services of a neutral arbitrator. Mr. Garner said, however, that the board does not believe mediation is necessary at this point.

In the meantime, the negotiating teams have divided into subcommittees to address areas in which agreement seems possible, although Ms. Garrett said the talks have been “extremely slow and grueling.” Public bargaining is expected to begin again if the subcommittees make substantial progress.

The union president and the district superintendent also have met for extended periods to try to break the logjam.

If an agreement is not reached by the middle of this month, Ms. Garrett said, Denver teachers will meet to take a strike vote and will not return to their classrooms on Jan. 7.

But the union is mindful of a recent Colorado Court of Appeals decision declaring strikes by public employees in the state illegal.

“It would be devastating if teachers went on strike,” said Kathleen Economos, chairman of the Denver School Improvement and Accountability Council, a state-mandated advisory group to the school board. “But as a parent with two children here, I’d rather see a strike and have a way of eliminating incompetence, which I think is really rare, but people are getting tired of.”

Ms. Economos added that a school-district official indicated at a recent meeting that the board may be willing to agree to a contract if it can achieve its goals that way.

The situation in Denver would not be possible if the state had a collective-bargaining law, according to John E. Dunlop, director of collective bargaining and compensation for the National Education Association.

“The question is, why, after 20 years or so, has the school board seen fit to do this?” Mr. Dunlop said. “It’s going to create disharmony in the schools. I don’t understand why they’re changing the whole basis of the agreement simply to get out from under the contract, when with adeptness and adroitness they probably could work within it.”

Mr. Dunlop and Susan Moore Johnson, an associate professor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, both speculated that the school board could be motivated by a belief that the union leadership does not speak for a majority of the district’s teachers.

Even if that were true, Ms. Johnson said, the fact that teachers’ job security is bound up in their contract could bring them closer to their leadership and backfire on the school board.

“The idea that things will be implemented because rules are changed from the top is really not recognizing the ways schools work as organizations and the way they have to depend on teachers carrying out those new ideas,” she added. “Those are lessons we learned years ago.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Move To Replace Pact Splits Board, Union in Denver