DENVER — A planned revamp of Denver Community Schools’ contract with teachers is getting a bad reception.
The Board of Education last week heard opposition to its April 6 initial bargaining proposal with the Denver Education Association.
Officials would remove everything from the contract except the few items still required under state law. Largely, those have to do with setting base wages. Much of what is removed would be retained in board policies and procedures, an employee handbook, or employee work rules, according to the proposal.
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That didn’t quiet concerns for a group of staff and residents who attended the board’s Wednesday meeting. More than a dozen spoke on issues of staffing and the contract proposal during the meeting’s public forum.
“I worked in a district that did not have a contract but a ‘just trust me’ handbook,” said art teacher Abby Fliehler. While that worked on a day-to-day basis, changes in administrators led to shifts in positions.
“By keeping the master contract, you would be sending a strong signal,” she contended. “Educators need working conditions that are predictable. Our relationship, between the educators and board, is more important than politics.”
Media specialist Tyllie Corbin said she has talked to a number of friends in other school districts that took items out of a contract and put them in a handbook. Those friends told her about protections being taken away and cuts being made.
In an interview after the meeting, Superintendent Brad Laures suggested teachers have nothing to worry about.
“I think there’s a lot of fear mongering going on right now,” he said. “It’s critical that we treat our staff members well. The notion that they’re going to lose every right they have is, in my opinion, not valid.”
Laures noted that other district staff have had many employment procedures outside of a contract for years, including administrators, bus drivers and other non-teaching support staff.
“I will always treat our staff fairly whether it’s written in a contract, in a handbook or on a napkin,” he said.
The board’s proposal was made possible by a change in state law approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor last year. As a result, there are certain items public employee unions cannot negotiate over, such as insurance. Many items in the contract are considered “permissive” under the legislation — meaning they only need to be bargained on if both sides agree.
Band teacher Dan Cooper noted that there is “more security with a contract” than a handbook, which is not legally binding. “The district does not have to strip all the permissive language out of the contract,” he said.
A number of people also talked about their concerns with the district’s staffing levels in specific areas. Various speakers called for hiring staff in music, special education, the talented and gifted program and for students with behavioral issues.
Laures said the district has made several hires in the past two years and acknowledged difficulty in hiring another talented and gifted teacher. Officials are hoping to share the position with another school district.
He said the district aims to maintain an unspent balance equaling between 10 and 20 percent of its budget authority. No other funding sources are available in the budget.
“We’d love to hire all of those positions, but financially we can’t do it,” said Laures.
Parent Kristi Shollenbarger expressed sympathy for the teachers. “I feel like a contract is fair,” she said. She wants to know there is a level of trust between staff and administrators.
Scott Krebsbach, board president, voiced appreciation for the staff but didn’t specifically address any concerns during the public forum. He referenced long-range planning and seemed to suggest some of the concerns relate to Denver Schools’ enrollment.
“We are very blessed to have a rural school district that is growing,” he said. Certified enrollment counts tracked by the Iowa Department of Education show the district has grown by 36 students since the fall of 2015 and has 786 kindergarten through 12th-grade students this year.