Is Momentum Growing for Open School Union Negotiations in Colorado?

Transparency. Good government. Conducting public business in the light of day. I happen to think these are more than trite phrases and ideas. If you’ve been following my coverage of the dispute over opening union bargaining sessions in Colorado Springs School District 11, you have an idea of what I mean.

Yesterday my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow took on the growing controversy over whether negotiations in Colorado’s largest school district — Jefferson County Public Schools — should be open to public observation. The story is kind of long and convoluted, which is why he took it on in his own blog rather than drag this poor little 5-year-old kid into the fray so quickly. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to highlight a couple items, including his conclusion:

Neither parents and other taxpaying citizens, nor the journalists who help bring them information, are welcome at the table to observe how tax dollars are divvied up and many operational policies are established. I just so happen to think that good government conducts its affairs in the light of day. Here’s hoping we can get a positive resolution for greater transparency in Jeffco — and soon.

A split vote by the Jeffco Board of Education has left district negotiators uncertain how to proceed. They are awaiting “direction from a majority of the board” before sessions will be resumed. What do local citizens think? Do they agree with me about the importance of transparency (and I have praised the Jeffco district before for leading the way on financial transparency) in these important negotiations?

I know Ben thinks he is smart about these issues. He did write that issue backgrounder last year: Colorado Education and Open Negotiations: Increasing Public Access to School District Bargaining. And yes, his conclusion I quoted above is pretty good. But I think a better summary of the argument for open school district-teachers union negotiations came back in a June 2009 blog post by the venerable Mike Antonucci:

Unions prefer a closed-door negotiation for a very simple reason – it neutralizes the public. It clouds the perception of who represents whom. In this model, the public plays the role of interested observers. The union and district administration hash out the details, and the results are presented to the citizenry. Sort of like the way we would watch negotiations between the Teamsters and UPS, or maintenance workers and the airlines. The public has an indirect interest in the outcome, but has no stake in the bargaining process.

Teacher union negotiators may inform their constituency – the members – about every detail of bargaining. And who are district negotiators allowed to inform? The school board and the superintendent. This maintains the facade that bargaining is strictly between “management” and labor.

If you open up negotiations, you change the dynamic entirely. The public becomes party to the bargaining. District negotiators are reminded they ostensibly represent the public, not just the administration. Unions are faced with a question they would rather not contemplate: If we are bargaining for the teachers, who are we bargaining against?

Maybe, just maybe, the idea will catch on around Colorado.