At the most recent meeting of the Colorado Springs School District 11 board, members voted to ask the Colorado Springs Education Association to waive the condition of privacy in negotiations with the district. Simply, the board voted — in the name of transparency — to open a process ongoing since January.
And, asks the Rev. Al Loma of the D-11 board and the district's bargaining team, who could argue against transparent government?
"If the board decides that the process should go public, then those who do not want it to go public will have to [say so]," Loma said before the Feb. 23 meeting.
Of those who do oppose it, he said, "it makes me question their motives."
CSEA responded that it wasn't interested in waiving the condition in the union's master agreement that specifies such meetings be closed. The motive is to protect the integrity of the negotiations, the union says.
Monday, the two groups met for the first time since the school board's decision — the fifth time since negotiations began — with the doors still shut.
Predictably, the controversy undercut much of the momentum. The issue of transparency, "the elephant in the room," Loma says, "bogged down some of the progress."
A changing 'mood'
The master agreement stipulates that bargaining meetings be private, standard procedure in union negotiations, and for good reason, says CSEA president Kevin Marshall. It enables both sides to feel at ease.
In private, says CSEA director Tim Cross, both sides are comfortable discussing delicate, complex issues. With an audience, members might hesitate before posing possible solutions, guessing how they will play with media and public. Worse, anyone might take the opportunity to grandstand.
"It exposes us to creating a much more politicized debate," Cross says. "I would say discretion is what we engage in, not secrecy."
Both sides' governing boards have to vote on the final agreement, which is then publicly available.
But Loma emphasizes that D-11 is one of the city's largest employers, spending "just south of a half a billion dollars of tax money." It is critical, he says, to the public trust to keep the district open to public scrutiny, which will also force bargaining members to behave.
"If they don't want to say it in public," Loma says, "I don't want to hear what they have to say. But if I can stand on my principles and morals, then I should be able to speak anywhere."
Loma, who argues that "the mood of the country is changing in this direction," has his supporters.
Fellow board director Bob Null introduced the motion at the board meeting to request open negotiations. Jeff Crank, state director of the anti-union Americans for Prosperity, spoke to the board in favor of the open meetings. (AFP also recently threw its support — and money — behind Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to break public sector unions' right to collectively bargain in Wisconsin.)
Crank covered almost identical talking points as Loma.
"If you open the process, will there be grandstanding, will there be posturing?" Crank asked rhetorically. "Just like Congress, they grandstand and posture because there are C-Span cameras ... but that's OK. That's not a valid excuse to close that process."
According to sources familiar with discussions inside the negotiations, the issue of transparency was never raised before being made public through a press release from Americans for Prosperity and in the D-11 board meeting.
"I think that there is a real initiative nationwide," says Cross, "to take unions down."
One down, 18 to go
It's a bad year for negotiations to be consumed by this issue. In most years, only compensation is discussed. But last year the district and CSEA agreed to open all 19 articles of the master agreement this time. Cross isn't sure when all 19 articles were last opened, but it's been at least 16 years.
"We have got to do some housekeeping, and frankly," he says, "have some courageous conversations about it."
Hoping to ease the burden, both sides had agreed to use interest-based bargaining instead of the more common collective bargaining. The intent of the switch, says Cross, was to relieve the rancor. In collective bargaining, he says, the two sides present their positions one week before bargaining begins. In IBB, Cross says, both sides start by asking, "What shared interests do we have?"
In this instance the shared interest is to create the best climate possible for students and teachers.
IBB, says Janet Tanner, D-11 board vice-president, "is something that we added this year because we thought it would make everything go smoother." Yet bargaining started two months ago, and the two sides have reached tentative agreement on only one article. All 19 must be tentatively agreed upon before the agreement goes to each side to ratify.
Ideally, says Cross, the majority of articles would be done by the end of April or early May, in time to discuss financials. He says they now will be lucky to have the entire agreement ironed out before teachers leave for the summer.
"We are trying," Cross says, "to set off to the side our ordinary practice of keeping the other side at arm's length."
Neither side is going to win, he adds, "by drawing a line in the sand."