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Jeffco Schools contract talks hit impasse Monday

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Contract talks between the Jeffco Schools negotiating team and the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) came to a halt Monday afternoon after JCEA declared impasse and walked away from the bargaining table.

“It is our belief that the Board's team has not been empowered by the Board to actually bargain and furthermore, we believe that the communication of the Board's bargaining goals have not taken place in a way that was truly intended to reach a mutually agreed upon outcome,” JCEA bargaining chair and Wheat Ridge High School teacher Stephanie Rossi told supporters gathered outside the Jeffco Education Building.

Hundreds of teachers and supporters gathered to watch the negotiations on Monday.

“Our community deserves better,” Rossi said.

A district statement said a declaration of impasse was “premature,” and hoped JCEA would return to open negotiations because a full discussion of compensation had not yet occurred. It also said they would work through the impasse process as necessary.

Jeffco Schools values its employees and remains committed to the negotiations process and will work with the JCEA negotiating team to determine the next steps,” the statement said.

Jeffco School Board President Ken Witt also released a statement to Chalkbeat Colorado, saying "I am disappointed that the association has decided to abandon the open negotiations process for a closed impasse mediation process, and hope they come back to the negotiating table."

When two bargaining parties reach impasse, the two parties move into a process of mediation or fact finding with a mediator. Besides compensation, class size and workload issues still need to be negotiated.

At the heart of the impasse were compensation issues. JCEA had asked for the Jeffco School Board’s position on teacher salary increases during the previous week’s bargaining session. A week later on Monday, the board still had not provided direction the district’s bargaining team.

Rossi also asked about an agreement signed last year between the union and district related to “steps,” or pay increases that teachers receive for years of service.

The agreement had been that those would be restored when new funding was available, but as of Monday afternoon, no funding had been allotted for those increases.

In addition, $4.2 million was cut from available funds for compensation during the regular Jeffco School Board meeting on April 3. The district had proposed that $11.7 million would be earmarked for raises when negotiations began, which equated to a 2.5 percent pay raise, on average. Mandated increases for Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA) contributions and implementation costs for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) were included in a separate budget item when negotiations began.

At Thursday’s meeting, board members John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt voted to deduct PERA increases from the $11.7 million.

The 3-2 vote included both the SAED increase at a cost of approximately $2.1 million, which can by law come out of money available otherwise available for raises, and the AED increase –the district’s portion—at a cost of approximately $1.6 million for a total of $3.7 million.

ACA costs, $500,000, were also deducted from the $11.7 million, reducing the amount of money available for salaries increases to $7.5 million.

Jeffco Schools employees have not had a raise in four years, and they have paid all health care increases for a decade.

If JCEA and the Jeffco School Board do not agree on a mediator, one will be selected for them by the American Arbitration Association.

The district and union were in their third week of negotiations when talks broke down.

During the first bargaining session, JCEA asked the district to extend their contract past its current expiration of August 2015. The district refused to consider the possibility, even after JCEA said they would agree to completely open up the contract for renegotiation next spring.

Signs of trouble were on the horizon Thursday night even before the board cut the amount of money available for raises.

During public comment, Rossi and other JCEA representatives asked the board to honor the interest-based bargaining process that the board voluntarily agreed to use.

JCEA and Jeffco have used an interest-based bargaining process for several years, in which both parties identify issues and brainstorm options that meet as many interests as possible.

In the case of the extended contract issue, Rossi said, the board’s team rejected all options without trying to find consensus.

“Unless there were board interests that were not stated at the bargaining table, it is difficult to understand how the board came to the conclusion that none of the options were viable,” Rossi said.

Concerns that Jeffco might follow the route that the Douglas County School District took in cutting ties with its teachers’ union prompted the request for a contract extension. Contract negotiations were unproductive, the contract expired, and the school board unilaterally implemented a new pay system and teacher evaluation system.

“We’re willing to open the whole contract up but we want a legally binding contract until past the 2017 election,” said Lisa Elliot, JCEA executive director.

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