Colorado

School transparency issue heads to ballot

Collective bargaining negotiations could be forced into public light

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An effort to require school boards to open up collective bargaining negotiations to the public has earned a place on the November ballot.
The Secretary of State's Office confirmed Aug. 13 that Initiative 124 earned enough valid petition signatures to qualify.
If voters approve, the measure would require school boards to conduct meetings that involve collective bargaining or employment contract negotiations to take place in public.
Similar efforts over the years have failed at the legislative level.
John Caldera of the Independence Institute, the Libertarian-leaning think tank that is behind the initiative, said the measure is about providing more transparency to the school budget process.
“The only people who love closed-door meetings are the ones who are behind the closed doors,” Caldera said.
Personnel costs make up the lion's share of school district budgets and Caldera said that it's only fair for taxpayers to know how their money is being spent at their neighborhood schools.
“Imagine if the Joint Budget Committee (the legislative group responsible for putting together the annual state budget) was closed-door and nobody could go in there to see how the largest part of Colorado's budget is spent,” Caldera said. “People would be rightfully indignant.”
But those who oppose the measure argue that opening up the negotiation process to the public would have an adverse impact on negotiations. And what works best for one school district isn't necessarily a good fit at another.
“When we have some of these issues that seem to be repeated every time, we think of a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Bruce Caughey, executive director for the Colorado Association of School Executives. “It doesn't fit for every community. It attacks the autonomy of local school boards.”
Caughey said that opening up contract talks to the public would have “a chilling effect on conversations between teachers and school board members.”
Caughey also said that, if passed, the measure would lead to sensitive matters being aired for the public to see, a confidentiality issue that could be “ripe” for litigation.
“The last thing we need to do now is drain money out of instruction because of increased cost in litigation,” he said.
The initiative comes at a time when relations between unions and school boards are tense in some districts. That's especially true in Douglas and Jefferson Counties, where reform candidates swept into power last year, putting the clamps on union power in those school districts.
That's one of the reasons why Caughey is concerned about opening up a delicate process that he believes already has enough built-in transparency.
“This is just one more measure that has the potential of increased tension,” he said.
But initiative backers aren't persuaded by that argument.
“The people who dislike this are the parties in the smoky back room,” Caldera said. “They will all hate it because they don't want the accountability.”