Melinda Lawson’s fingers flew across the keyboard of her laptop as she listened intently to the negotiations, but she wasn’t satisfied with what she heard.
She was typing every word said during the bargaining session between the Colorado Springs Education Association and the Colorado Springs District 11 Board of Education. Partially because of a complaint filed by her husband, this specially-scheduled session was open to public scrutiny.
Tom Strand, president of the school board, said he hoped the open session might lead to the Lawsons dropping their complaint, but Melinda Lawson said Monday that was not the case.
Chad Lawson’s lawsuit, filed against the school district in March, is just the latest action in the debate over whether contract negotiations between the teachers union and the 29,500-student district should be open to the public.
For decades, annual contract talks between the two sides have been held behind closed doors—standard practice in most Colorado school districts.
But this year, the conservative group Americans for Prosperity and others began publicly calling for the talks to be open. On March 9, when the district and union met in closed session, some two dozen protesters picketed outside. Hundreds of others have called or e-mailed school board members, who voted to ask the union to collectively bargain in public—union leaders have declined.
Lawson’s complaint, and the protesters, assert the district violated provisions of the legally-binding master agreement with the teachers’ union, which requires a public meeting at the start of the bargaining process.
Strand acknowledged the legal action was a reason the public session was held Friday. The board and CSEA representatives wrangled over an agenda for two weeks, he said, and finally agreed last week on details.
For all the brouhaha over public vs. closed meetings, the scheduled 12-hour session only found a handful of people present at any one time. About 65 people attended throughout the day. Attendance peaked at 22 in mid-afternoon.
“We are just fulfilling the requirements,” Strand said.
Teachers’ Union: ‘Nothing to Hide’
Confusion because all 19 provisions of the master agreement are up for renewal this year may have led to the failure to hold a public hearing, Strand said. The agreement, however, states that the initial meeting at the start of negotiations shall be open to the public.
No hearing date has been set in El Paso County District Court, which will rule on Chad Lawson’s request for an injunction halting any ongoing negotiations and requiring both parties to scrap what they’ve done to date and start over.
“Both my husband and I are products of District 11,” Melinda Lawson said. “I care.” She said two of her four children currently attend school in the district.
The entire subject of open vs. closed meetings has ignited passions. Americans for Prosperity called on the school board to boycott negotiations until all meetings are open. The group helped organize the March 9 protest.
Jeff Crank, Colorado director of Americans for Prosperity, said the open meetings provision has already been violated.
“I went back to the board and suggested transparency,” he said. “Either open it up completely or don’t negotiate at all. They’ve already violated procedure.”
Crank said the Lawsons are not affiliated with his group, but may have become aware of the open meeting provision at the protest.
District 11 school board members voted to “encourage” open meetings between it and the CSEA. But the CSEA board voted to keep bargaining closed, except for the one meeting, and declined comment on the open vs. closed controversy. Because all 19 articles of the master agreement expire this year, everything is subject to negotiation, including the rules of the collective bargaining process.
“We don’t feel there is anything to hide on keeping the negotiations closed,” said Kevin Marshall, president of the CSEA. “But we want to have candid and open discussions (in closed sessions). Besides, the agreement terms are always made public before the board of education votes” on them.
CSEA representatives would not comment about the issue at Friday’s public session but a March 2011 newsletter to members took a clear stance against open negotiations.
“Allowing outside parties access to bargaining sessions would open the doors to the same type of political posturing we’ve seen recently in the media,” wrote Tim Cross, CSEA staff member. He said the “end product has been and will continue to be available to anyone who cares to see it.”
All Issues on Table This Year
Crank said an open process promotes good faith. “The union would do itself a lot of good,” he said, by opening meetings.
The Colorado Springs Gazette fired a salvo into the issue, questioning the entire concept of collective bargaining between public employees, which include teachers, and employers like District 11.
This is the first time in 16 years that all articles of the master agreement expire. Marshall said the ground rules between the board and the CSEA have worked well in the past and there is no reason to believe they won’t work now.
Strand said the initial public sessions in past years usually take place in April and involved financial matters. The fact that the board is dealing not only with a completely new agreement, but with the budget as well, may have led to some “oversight” regarding open meetings.
The master agreement, however, states that initial April meetings will take place in years when only financial articles expire. In other years, when other aspects of the agreement need to be revised, the initial public meeting is to take place at “date agreed upon by the parties.”
Negotiations this year are based on a style called interest-based bargaining, which seeks to limit confrontations between adversaries and promote collaboration between partners. Bargaining is based on taking both parties through s series of steps that result in solutions to common goals.
Part of Friday’s meeting focused on an article of the master agreement dealing with teaching conditions and assignments. After listening, Melinda Lawson said she didn’t understand why all sessions weren’t open. But Strand noted the session didn’t involve the “sticky” issues involving issues like salaries and stipends.
The Colorado Springs district also is considering staff furloughs and increased class sizes as it deals with cutting more than $10 million from a $250 million operating budget.
The master agreement expires June 30. Strand said he was sure agreements on the more important issues would be reached before then. Among the issues being discussed are student discipline and teacher evaluations.
But the open vs. closed debate, with the ongoing bargaining, has some wary of making public statements.
“It’s too soon to say,” said Kevin Vick, CSEA vice president.
CSEA officials would not comment on the debate, citing bargaining and legal matters. The Lawson complaint did not name the CSEA as a defendant, only the school district and school board members.
Republished with permission from Education News Colorado. Copyright © 2010 Public Education & Business Coalition. For more information, visit www.ednewscolorado.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2011 edition of Education Week as Lawsuit Calls for Open District-Union Contract Negotiations