Weld County School Board Challenged for Taking On Local Union Prerogatives

Colorado is an interesting place for education reform, for many reasons. Among them are issues related to teacher professional membership and representation:

  1. In Colorado, public school teachers have a right to join or not join (and not pay fees to) a union or other professional membership organization.
  2. In Colorado, elected school boards are not obligated to enter a collective bargaining relationship with teachers or other employees.
  3. In Colorado, no state laws define collective bargaining for government workers, nor any of the related procedures and guidelines.
  4. In Colorado, school districts with active collective bargaining agreements are required to post them online (and have them available in the school office) for transparency and easy public access.

The first three on the list could apply to very few other states. (I think Utah may be the only other state with all four.) But what they together reflect is a strong basis for local control of education. Local control for school boards to decide — in some cases restricted by the parameters of existing agreements — whether and how to bargain. Even more local control for individual teachers to decide whether and how they want to be represented.

Some of the boundaries of this local control are being tested right now in northern Weld County — Gilcrest, to be exact. The Valley Re-1 school district has an acting “Professional Organizations” policy that appears to grant some sort of representative status to the local Valley Education Association, but looks nothing like a traditional collective bargaining agreement and isn’t recognized as such by the Colorado Department of Education’s online collection.

A couple months ago, the Greeley Tribune reported that the Re-1 Board of Education was looking to rescind this and other policies, and move beyond the traditional closed negotiation model because, in part, there is only a “52 percent participation rate” in the local union. As I understand, the share of district teachers who belong to VEA / CEA / NEA since has become a minority.

Questions are raised: Who speaks for the teachers who don’t want union representation, especially when they outnumber the union members? If the union can’t raise support from teachers when they have limited negotiating power, what happens to the union when the negotiating playing field is further leveled for all teachers?

Well, not surprisingly, the Colorado Education Association — the state’s largest teachers union — is not willing to surrender its limited negotiating prerogative, nor to provide a precedent for other school districts with similar negotiating models. The union filed a lawsuit against the school board, a suit that will get its first hearing in early 2011. The legal case has some potentially significant ramifications surrounding collective bargaining and the prerogatives of local school boards.

But in the meantime, the action continues: Tonight the Re-1 Board of Education is scheduled to vote on removing formal union recognition from its policies. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, it’s very hard to see how this will end up harming teachers — especially since so many already have voted with their feet (perhaps they determined the more than $700 a year in dues wasn’t giving them value when other options exist). About three-fourths of Colorado school districts, though they tend to be the smaller ones, operate without a teacher bargaining contract. Has that had a negative impact on teachers, or even more importantly, students? Hardly.

The scenario playing out in northern Weld County helps to remind us all politics (even union politics) is local, but both local citizens as well as those of us living in other corners of Colorado benefit from knowing what’s at stake. And it wouldn’t hurt to offer the Board an encouraging word, too.

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