Opponents of Proposition 104, titled "School Board Open Meetings," have their work cut out for them.
The proposed change, which voters will consider in November, would open school board meetings at which teachers' unions and other employee groups collectively bargain with school boards. In some districts, those negotiations decide everything from working conditions to salaries and benefits. Many, though not all, currently are closed to the press and any other interested members of the public.
Prop 104 was brought and backed (as Initiative 124) by the Independence Institute, a Denver-based conservative think tank. Jon Caldara, its president, says its intention is straightforward. Teacher salaries and benefits make up the bulk of school district budgets, which are funded by taxpayers, so taxpayers should be able to see how those decisions are made, and see how such negotiations ultimately affect the conditions of children's classrooms.
"It just makes no sense that this, one of the most important things a school board ever does, has been done behind closed doors," he says. "I can't think of any reason why someone would vote against this."
Laws on open meetings for school boards' collective bargaining vary from state to state, and even district to district. Caldara says 11 states require some level of open meetings. The Independent asked the National Education Association, which represents teachers' unions around the nation, to comment on the initiative. Despite being given days to respond, it did not do so by our deadline.
Bruce Caughey, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, which has taken a position against the initiative, is ready to concede that Caldara is right on one point.
"My initial reaction is that just about everybody supports open and accountable government, and that this is very likely to pass," Caughey says. "I think it will easily pass." But, he adds, "There are some policy implications that few people are aware of."
Some school districts already have many of their negotiations open to the public, he notes, including Colorado Springs School District 11, the only El Paso County school district that engages in collective bargaining. But Prop 104 is so broadly worded, Caughey says, that it could make completing negotiations difficult. He suspects that if it passes, school districts will face lawsuits until judges makes clear what constitutes a school board meeting. Caughey's fear is that the initiative will make even short, casual conversations illegal, unless they're held in public and posted in advance. Such requirements, he says, could make collective bargaining a nightmare.
Kevin Vick, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, D-11's teachers' union, is even less fond of the initiative. He notes that D-11 opened most of its negotiations a few years ago. He says they haven't gone as smoothly since, and that contracts aren't as clear as he'd like. That's not due to public comments, which aren't allowed, and would not be allowed under Prop 104; rather, he says, it's due to the tendency of people to grandstand in front of an audience instead of focusing on the business at hand, which has to be done on a deadline. The press, he says, also has a tendency to mix up final decisions and negotiations, stirring up discontent.
Vick says each district should be able to decide locally whether it wants to open meetings. He calls the initiative "a needless disruption to a system that already has a lot of needless disruptions."
CSEA's executive director, Thad Gemski, agrees, and notes that school districts already have financial transparency. "I mean," he says, "it's not like we have gold-plated pencils."
While it remained unspoken in interviews, there's no love apparently lost between the Independence Institute and teachers' groups. Caldara notes that before seeking an initiative, the institute supported state legislation aimed at opening collective bargaining meetings, which failed.
In the last three sessions, legislators have weighed bills that would have opened those meetings, and that would have ended collective bargaining for public employees outright. In 2014, the Legislature passed a compromise of sorts, mandating that school boards log executive sessions and retain electronic records of the meetings for two years.
That wasn't enough for the Independence Institute. Proposition 104's issue committee, Sunshine on Government, had raised $5,000 in monetary contributions and $271,653.90 in non-monetary contributions as of Sept. 2, its most recent filing. The only contributor listed is the Independence Institute.
Local Schools, Local Choices, the issue committee opposing Prop 104, had raised $50,100 as of Sept. 2. Of that, $30,000 came from the union Colorado Education Association, whose representatives declined an interview. Another $15,000 came from Education Reform Now Advocacy. The American Federation of Teachers Colorado, another union, gave $5,000.
A representative of Local School, Local Choices said the group was not prepared to comment at this time, saying its campaign is still "in formation."