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Colorado Education and Open Negotiations: Increasing Public Access to School District Bargaining

IB-2010-B (April 2010)
Author: Ben DeGrow

PDF of full Issue Backgrounder
Scribd version of full Issue Backgrounder

Forty-two of Colorado’s 178 school districts bargain exclusively with a local teachers union. Often conducted by tax-funded district employees on both sides, negotiations forge policies that determine the use of taxpayer dollars. Yet only one of the 42 districts (Poudre R-1) has an established policy that thoroughly ensures the public’s right to observe bargaining negotiations.

A 2001 state sunshine law requires Colorado school districts to post completed bargaining agreements online, but the process to create the agreements remains almost completely unseen. In 2004 and 2005, two separate legislative bills to expand public access to negotiations were defeated. Eleven other states have laws providing at least some public access to collective bargaining sessions or records, including six states that guarantee open negotiations.

No negotiations between government agencies and private organizations over public policies and public dollars should be held in secret. As unions tend to exert extraordinary influence over the election of the board members with whom they negotiate, it is even more crucial to make bargaining sessions accessible to the press, parents and other concerned citizens.

District officials who negotiate on behalf of the local school board tend to prefer closed sessions to maintain productive relationships with employee associations and to prevent inflamed passions from distorting the process. While their concerns may make the case to preclude public participation in most bargaining sessions, it should not require prohibiting all citizen input nor limiting public observation of the process.

Local policies to enhance bargaining transparency would be hard to achieve as they would be subject to the same dynamics that create closed negotiations. A statewide open negotiations law not only would honor the taxpaying public’s right to know, but also would offer the potential to make negotiated outcomes more responsible and fairer to all involved.