As anyone who has ever sat at either side of a bargaining table can attest, the labor-management relationship is already challenging enough in flush times. And it’s an order of magnitude tougher when budgets are tight and talk turns to paring things back. But as one Colorado district shows, it is not impossible for district and union leaders to work together to make tough decisions.
When the state’s Jefferson County school district faced a budget crunch in 2011, officials of the district and its teachers’ union purposefully decided to take a chance and collaborate, rather than engage in the common alternative: posturing, internal squabbling, an impasse, and, ultimately, layoffs.
Superintendent Cynthia M. Stevenson and Kerrie Dallman, then the president of the Jefferson County Education Association, hosted an “employee summit” at which representatives from the district, the union, and other employee groups outlined budget fundamentals, agreed on areas to cut, and then carried the details into their respective bargained contracts.
The accord kept employees on the rolls, minimized class-size increases, and preserved electives. And it has been generally (though not uniformly) praised in the 85,000-student district, located west of Denver.
The new approach to budgeting in Jefferson County, the state’s largest district, is notable partly because the administration and the union, while not sworn enemies, had had their fair share of uneasy moments. Contract talks had stalemated before, both over wages and over policy issues, such as the process for dismissing probationary teachers.
But the budget situation, Stevenson says, demanded a different way of interacting.
“We are just like every other place in the country: changing,” she says. “And in a changing environment, in times of declining resources and increased expectations, you have to operate differently.”
Put to the Test
Stevenson, who has been the superintendent for 11 years, understands change in the district better than most. She grew up in Jefferson County and attended school there.
Dallman only recently left the local union to assume the presidency of the state’s National Education Association chapter; her biography on the state affiliate’s website lists her collaborative work on the summit among her top accomplishments.
The idea for the summit grew out of a 2011 national conference on labor-management cooperation sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. That convening, in Denver, brought together some 150 teams, each consisting of a district’s superintendent, school board president, and teachers’ union leader, to try to identify new ways of working together.
For a good number of the attendees, the notion of collaboration never went further than a group photo with the U.S. secretary of education. But for Jefferson County’s leaders, the ideal would be put immediately to the test.
Midway through the conference, team members received word that the state portion of K-12 aid would be cut by nearly 10 percent. Jefferson County’s revenue, like that of other school districts in the state, had depended increasingly on the state money.
Fresh from attending a session in which Montgomery County, Md., officials made a presentation on a financial process drawing on input from employee associations, Dallman floated the idea with Stevenson and with David Thomas, then the chairman of the Jefferson County school board. Back in Colorado, the three leaders won board approval to pursue a similar approach.
“The way we’d done bargaining in the past really pitted groups against each other,” Dallman says. “This was a way we could come to the table around common values. And the common value chiefly was student achievement.”
Two representatives each from the district, the teachers’ union, the school board, and groups for administrators and classified staff members attended the two-day summit.
According to Jane Barnes, a school board member from 2003 to 2011 who sat in on the proceedings, negotiators discussed cuts in everything from transportation to academic programs to compensation to athletics.
The final agreement cut some $40 million from the 2011-12 budget, which was approved at $932 million. Among other provisions, it:
As painful as those reductions were, Jefferson County’s education leaders say the alternatives might have been worse, resulting in the elimination of counselors’ jobs, higher class sizes even in early grades, and the decimation of arts and music programs that would have “taken the heart and soul out of our schools,” in Stevenson’s words.
Barnes says the process also demonstrated unity in the face of adversity.
“We didn’t go into nasty board-union negotiations or air our dirty laundry in public,” she continues. “We came out of there with a much deeper respect for one another, and were able to say collectively that this was the best for the children of Jefferson County. … It was a great solution to the situation we had at the time.”
The process was used again in 2012, with several of the previous decisions carried over, including the furloughs.
The agreements helped solidify other areas of accord between the district and the union, such as working to support a property-tax increase, which voters narrowly approved this past November.
And they’re also united in pressing for changes in the state K-12 funding process.
The summit process itself was not necessarily easy, though. Both the superintendent and the union leader say they faced internal constituents who were uneasy about the new approach.
Describing the negotiations, Stevenson draws a parallel between letting go of favored initiatives and giving up a degree of control she’d been accustomed to in her position.
“One of the dangers of being a superintendent is that you can really start thinking you’re important. You really have to work against that,” she says. “In the summit, when you’re all equal players, suddenly what you say has no more impact than what everyone else says, and that can be difficult.”
Both she and Dallman praise a mediator brought in from the Washington-based Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to help with the discussion. Asked what advice she’d give other administrators interested in the process, Stevenson cites having a working relationship with local employee associations first. She meets with union leaders at least once formally and once informally each month.
And she recommends being prepared to give up “sacred cows” during negotiations, and having a mediator on hand to help guide discussions.
“We had the right players, the right relationships, the right mediators, the right shared values,” she says.
As of December, the budget cycle in the district was just beginning again, and it was not yet clear whether the summit process would continue. Despite the new revenue from the tax increase, officials anticipate more cuts.
Not everyone shares the opinion that the summits have been a successful approach. Laura Boggs, the only school board member to vote against entering into the summit process in 2011 and 2012, feels that since the convenings weren’t formally part of bargaining, they should have been open to the public.
And their results didn’t necessarily reflect community wishes, she contends. In 2012, community members put furloughs last fjon a list of cost-saving strategies in surveys commissioned by the school board, yet they were continued into a second year, she says.
“It’s a fantastic concept; anything you can do to take the adversarial [nature] out of collective bargaining should be a good thing,” Boggs says. “The dilemma comes when you put these people who are so like-minded in the same room, and the result is students are in school for fewer days. How is that focused on academics?”
She would like the district to consider longer-term structural changes to the teacher-salary schedule and pension plan.
Barnes, the former school board member, acknowledges that most of the committee’s fixes have been short-term. But she says that was partly a function of the need to make immediate budget reductions.
Ultimately, she believes that the summit delivered the right results at a critical time, and that it will be up to Stevenson, the school board, and Dallman’s successor at the JCEA to determine whether it continues to be the appropriate way to budget in tough times.
“I think communities are ready for different processes at different times,” Barnes says. “You need to keep bringing new folks in, and they may be ready for a different process. Who knows?”