By David Cook
Nov. 4 is fast approaching, and with the autumn air comes the season of ubiquitous political ads, providing the public with a vast array of content supporting, attacking and convoluting the many items on this year’s ballot. As voters observe this mudslinging, each must find a way to sort through the misinformation in order to cast a vote that accurately reflects their stance on a variety of issues.
This preview is designed to guide each voter toward making an informed decision about one ballot initiative affecting Colorado school board meetings: State Ballot Initiative 104. Using this information, Colorado residents are empowered to influence the changes they feel are necessary in Colorado communities and schools.
State Ballot Initiative 104
This initiative would require all Colorado school districts to allow meetings in which collective bargaining is discussed to be open to the public.
There has been some debate over the language presented on the ballot regarding this initiative. In order to fully understand this controversy one must examine the language as it appears to voters.
The Ballot Initiative will appear as such on November 4th:
“Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes requiring any meeting of a board of education, or any meeting between any representative of a school district and any representative of employees, at which a collective bargaining agreement is discussed to be open to the public?”
First examining the advocates of prop 104 – those supporting this initiative feel that school boards should be transparent about issues affecting their children’s education. They assert that the broad vocabulary used on the ballot will allow for more “sunshine on government.”
Jon Caldara is a Colorado resident, and the president of the Denver based think-tank: The Independence Institute. He is a major proponent of Proposition 104, voicing his support in a filmed interview with Aaron Harbor of the Denver Post.
“Proposition 104 merely amends the existing open meetings law, and says that this meeting, the meetings that go for negotiations for contracts….need to be open.” Caldara explains, “That contract is about 85% of the school districts’ budget. It dictates how our kids are going to be taught. It says how our teachers are going to be compensated, and it shows tax payers where the money is going to be spent.”
Caldara asserts that many government officials would rather make these budget decisions behind closed doors, and he urges private citizens to impose regulations on government programs to ensure transparency and accountability.
He states, “Colorado has got this great tradition of transparency and sunshine and those laws came into effect through the initiative process. We might forget this, but usually elected officials don’t like a lot of sunshine. They like the door locked, and that’s why it took citizen pressure to get things like the Colorado Open Records Law and the Open Meetings Law [passed].”
Caldara adds, “In transparency, we should be able to see this. Sadly the state legislature had the opportunity to pass [prop 104] about four times in the last decade, and they refused to. So, it’s up to we, the citizens.”
Looking to the other side of the issue, we find Ranelle Lang, the assistant dean of the University of Colorado School of Education. Lang feels that prop 104 is a bad idea, “because it is overly broad.”
“Proposition 104 calls for all ‘discussions’ about collective bargaining agreements between districts and their employees to be open to the public,” Lang articulates. “This broad, vague wording could mean that everyday conversations that occur between teachers and administrators about things like snow days, student schedules, and professional development could also have to be made open to the public. If that one word were changed to “negotiation” then this would be an entirely different ballot measure.”
She then adds, “school districts in Colorado already have the option to hold their negotiations in public, and many do. This is a “local control” issue and special interest groups should NOT interfere in this local discussion and decision.”
One of such special interest groups that Lang refers to is the Denver think-tank, headed up by Caldara. The Independence Institute has supported a libertarian agenda on many ballot issues in the past.
In general the libertarian stance is to “maximize autonomy and freedom of choice,” according to the Institute of Humane Societies definition of libertarianism. So, the support of this proposition by Caldara and his institute is not surprising, as sunshine on government and “the people’s” involvement in these decisions is important to those aligned with the libertarian ideology.
However, Lang maintains that opening the doors to meetings involving school board budget discussion will cause more harm than good, if the proposition is passed as it is currently written.
“Prop 104 provides no additional funding for local school districts to pay for the increased bureaucracy and legal bills that would now be required to comply with this new statewide mandate, especially if it applies to everyday practices,” Lang explains. “If the language were more precise, then the costs would not be so high. But legal counsel may be needed in order to evaluate everyday practices, which could grind districts to a halt.”
Supporters of the proposition insist that there is no intention built into prop 104 which would require daily practices and conversations between school officials to be made open to the public.
Caldara specifies, “Not only is it not my intent – it is not the law. We need to read these changes in terms of the entire open meetings law.”
While this is apparently not the intent of proponents of 104, it is a feasible outcome, according to school board members like Lang.
Lang reiterates, “Because the language is so overly broad and vague, districts could have increased costs because they’ll have to hire a lawyer to help them understand what is required of them and they’ll have increased bureaucracy. Prop 104 is another one-size-fits all solution dreamed up by special interests.”
Responding to Caldara, Lang states, “This is perhaps good politics for the Independence Institute but it is BAD policy for the state of Colorado and for local public school districts.”
Lang leaves voters with one last bit of information before departing. She challenges each to look into this issue and why groups like the Intelligence Institute are working to change current laws, as well as why this measure, which only applies to collective bargaining within school boards, is on the ballot at all.
“One more thing…food for thought…” she adds. “It is curious that of all the public workers who negotiate a labor contract, only teachers were singled out for this draconian measure. Cities, counties and the State itself are not covered by this measure.”