Supporters of a master contract for Steamboat Springs School District employees say the newly configured School Board presents a rare opportunity for negotiations.
"For 15 years, at least, we've had a board that's been less than teacher-friendly," Brad Kindred, president of the Steamboat Springs Education Association, said last week.
As a result of the Nov. 1 election, the board now has a retired principal and a retired teacher among its five members. New board Presi--dent Tom Miller-Freutel said he will make sure his board listens to the concerns of teachers and school staff.
"I can pretty much guarantee that," Miller-Freutel said last week. "It will be our goal to focus on the environment and tools that teachers need to accomplish our goals as a community."
For Kindred and the SSEA, that means a chance to negotiate master contract agreements -- legally binding, multiyear contracts that define policies for all working conditions, including class sizes and length of workdays, for teachers and school staff.
"We've been trying to get a board to talk about a master contract for eight years," former SSEA president Mike Smith said.
Smith, a math teacher at Steam--boat Springs High School who also works with the Colorado Education Association, wasted no time in raising the issue.
"This year, once again, we are bringing the idea of a master contract agreement back to the negotiating table," he said Monday during the first meeting of the new board and only minutes after Miller-Freutel was elected its president.
Superintendent Donna Howell said the timing of Smith's statement did not surprise her.
"The seated (previous) board was not in favor of a master contract," she said. "I would have expected it to come up (at that meeting)."
Before coming to Steamboat Springs, Howell was the superintendent at school districts in Illinois, Texas and Vermont. She said some of those districts had master contracts for employees.
"I personally am not supportive of master contracts for one important reason," Howell said last week. "It ties the hands of an administration to be able to respond to the needs of an individual employee or to the needs of a community as it changes."
Howell said she saw an example of changing needs for an individual employee firsthand while working in Illinois.
A staff member in her district had a husband who was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Howell said. The staff member wanted to take her husband out of the country for treatment, and she requested time off before and after a holiday to do so. The master agreement that district employees had negotiated with the school board, however, strictly prohibited time off around holidays.
Howell found herself faced with a tough decision.
"I let her go," Howell said. "I knew it was in violation of the contract, but it was the right thing to do for that person."
A formal grievance was filed against Howell because of that decision. The grievance, she said, went through an administrative process "to the highest levels" of Illinois education before it was resolved.
"I've worked under (master) contracts -- they don't eliminate grievances," Howell said. "Districts that have master contracts get into disagreements, too, over things like contract language."
Kindred said master contracts do not need to be constrictive.
"We understand the need for flexibility. Why don't we write that clause into the master agreement?" Kindred said. "The beauty of a master agreement is that we can make it anything we want it to be."
The SSEA is the recognized bargaining association for most district employees. Those employees pay annual dues to the SSEA, Kindred said, which primarily fund a $1 million insurance policy against liability in lawsuits, such as harassment cases brought by students.
The SSEA's largest concern with the existing policies that define working conditions is that they are part of "an unfriendly document backed by unfriendly policies," Kindred said. He pointed to an open-ended clause about work hours that asks teachers to fulfill "other duties as assigned."
"That's the kind of stuff we could hammer out in a master agreement," Kindred said. "All we want is policies that are easily understood and cannot be arbitrarily changed."
Marty Lamansky, a speech teacher and forensics coach at the high school, said the current policies can be confusing.
"There appears to be a need to get something real clear and concise," he said. "Over the past four or five years, we've had a lot of misunderstandings."
Creating a legally binding, long-term contract for district employees may be difficult under provisions of the state's Taxpayers Bill of Rights said district Finance and Operations Director Dale Mellor.
TABOR only allows for contracts of three years or longer, if the money to fund salaries in those contracts is specifically set aside, such as in a separate bank account.
The Knowledge and Skills Based Pay system outlined in a policy negotiated by district staff and the School Board in 2001, for example, was not legally binding, Mellor said, because funds for the pay system were defined as "subject to annual appropriations." The School Board deemed the system unaffordable in 2004, spawning a lawsuit recently filed by the SSEA against the School Board. A trial date for the lawsuit has not been set.
The district has one employee with a long-term salary agreement.
"Usually, the only employee in the district to have a long-term contract is the superintendent," said Howell, who is in the first year of a four-year contract. A portion of the district's general fund is set aside in a bank account for her salary, Howell said.
So is the superintendent operating under an individual master agreement?
"That's a good question," Howell said. "The difference with my contract is that I don't have a set salary for future years, just for this year."
District employees negotiate their salaries on an annual basis, as well. An agreement was reached last month on this year's salaries, and the district's Collaborative Bargaining Team soon will begin negotiations for next year.
Kindred said he understands that the district operates year-to-year fiscally, but he said salaries would not have to be included in a master agreement.
"What's wrong with negotiating salaries every year, but binding working conditions for three years or longer?" he said.
In coming months, questions such as that will be for the School Board to decide, not Howell.
"I can give my opinion, but whatever proposal comes forward, it will ultimately be the School Board's decision," Howell said.
Although Miller-Freutel said he does not feel comfortable talking about the positives or negatives of a master contract before further analysis of the facts and data involved, he confirmed that the board soon will address the issue in depth.
"We will look at it very quickly," he said. "But I can tell you one thing -- we're not going to make fast decisions anymore."
The next School Board meeting is Nov. 21.
-- To reach Mike Lawrence, call 871-4203
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org