TSD, TEA contract dispute continues

Board of Education rejects arbitration report in full

By John Gardner
The Surveyor

A neutral, third-party judge’s report of the failed contract negotiation between the Thompson School District and the Thompson Education Association found the board of education failed to negotiate in good faith and, in the judge’s opinion, may have never intended to ratify any agreement.

The board voted to reject retired Judge John Criswell’s non-binding arbitration report in full at its Aug. 19 meeting, and again voted not to approve a contract with the teachers’ union, instead opting to go to court over the matter. The arbitration and legal fees have already accumulated approximately $80,000, according to Gordon Jones, TSD chief financial officer.

Criswell explained, in a 32-page report, that the board’s entire course of conduct, including its refusal to specify the issues it wanted to address during negotiations, its refusal to ratify the revised MOU on the basis described by the board’s majority, and its refusal to enter into further negotiations or to mediate the dispute, constituted a violation of the current agreement to negotiate in good faith.

“While there is no direct evidence upon the point, it is obvious that the board’s negotiators found it impossible to conduct negotiations in good faith under these circumstances,” Criswell wrote.

The report continued: “Of the four members voting not to ratify, at least three (Carlson, Langner and Rice) and perhaps all four (Kerrigan?), did so, at least in part, because by ratifying the revised MOU, the district would continue to recognize the [teachers’ association] as the exclusive bargaining agent for its teachers. Under the specific circumstances here, basing their votes on such a reason was a failure to make a good faith attempt to reach an agreement.”

Criswell noted that under Colorado law the district isn’t required to deal with a teachers’ association or to enter into an MOU with such an association. However, Criswell’s report noted the board purported to fulfill its contractual duty to bargain over a new agreement by having its negotiators spend numerous hours in several bargaining sessions in an attempt to reach a new agreement with the teachers’ association. “And its negotiators did so, not once but twice,” Criswell wrote. “It was only at the time that this second attempt was rejected by the board that its majority first announced that it no longer was willing to recognize [the teacher’s association] and rejected that revised MOU on that basis.”

“This action rendered the prior negotiations a complete sham and certainly meant that the district did not enter into those negotiations in a good faith attempt to reach an agreement,” Criswell wrote.

At the Aug. 19 board meeting, many students, parents and community members spoke out about the report.

“Failing to negotiate in good faith and turning the negotiations with the TEA into a sham, the board, Mr. Kerrigan, Mr. Carlson, Mrs. Rice, and Dr. Langner, have proven that my fellow students and the TSD are not their highest priority,” said Thompson Valley High School senior Matthew Bell to the board members during public comment.

Right out of the gate, board member, Lori Hvizda Ward, motioned to approve Criswell’s decision and the MOU. The motion was seconded by Pam Howard, but both were ultimately voted down by the board majority.

Hvizda Ward strongly agreed with Criswell’s report, saying she believes the majority never intended to ratify any MOU regardless of content. More specifically, she highlighted Criswell’s report that stated the majority’s decision to not approve the MOU was based on the teachers’ association’s exclusivity as the group’s bargaining unit.

“The arbitrator called the negotiation process a sham; and we owe it to our students, our teachers, and our taxpayers to rectify this situation by voting to pass the MOU as it was last presented to us,” Hvizda Ward said.

Board Vice President Bryce Carlson called for a full rejection of Criswell’s report, saying a review by board attorney Brad Miller found the report contained numerous inaccuracies, internal contradictions, and questionable conclusions and insinuates that the board negotiated in bad faith.

“Accepting this report in any form would be tantamount to saying that the board operated deliberately in bad faith,” Carlson said. “This is simply not the case, and I will not mischaracterize the board or its actions in such a way.”

Howard, who called Criswell’s report “humiliating,” told the crowded boardroom that if the MOU wasn’t approved, again, it was for one reason only: to break up the teachers’ union.

Board President Bob Kerrigan defended his and the majority’s actions, saying they had clearly indicated their negotiating points in the MOU by the specified deadline. He also stood behind the board’s decision to reject Criswell’s report.

“This is about an elected school board that is executing its constitutional authority to make judgements about what is best for our kids, our district, and it saddens me that this arbitrator assumes that I did not act in good faith,” Kerrigan said. “[Criswell] does not know me. He doesn’t know our board. He doesn’t know our community. And that is what really has saddened me out of this; that [Criswell] read a couple of things and assumed that I acted in bad faith. It’s not true.”