Unless the discussion involves nuclear launch codes or some other sensitive element of national security, secrecy is the enemy of good government. That is true of the federal government, at the state level and most especially in local affairs. And there is no reason that principle should not also extend to schools.
Colorado voters will have a chance to reinforce that point this fall with a ballot measure that would require school board negotiations with teachers’ unions be conducted in open meetings. That public schools spending the public’s money should do business in public only makes sense.
Secretary of State Scott Gessler announced last week that random sampling showed that backers of Initiative 124 had gathered more than 110 percent of the signatures needed to be “deemed sufficient.” With that, it was certified to the 2014 general election ballot. Under Colorado’s naming convention, it then became Proposition 104.
Its purpose and meaning are simple and clear: School board negotiations relating to collective bargaining must be conducted in open meetings, not in executive session. It should be noted that this specifically applies to collective bargaining. Negotiations for individual employees’ contracts are not covered.
The idea is the brainchild of the Independence Institute and its president, Jon Caldara. Often referred to as a libertarian or free-market think tank, the Independence Institute was better described in a 2013 Denver Post story as “the unapologetic Ivy League frat house of Colorado politics.” Its focus has largely been right-wing – pro-gun and anti-tax – but with a liberal dash of irreverent humor. (Caldara has said the think tank’s unofficial motto is “Come for the public policy, stay for the sexual harassment.”)
And it may well be that there is an anti-tax or anti-union animus behind the Independence Institute’s actions here. But regardless of what motivated Caldara and company to come up with Proposition 104, they got it right.
Schools are a big part of everyone’s property taxes and, as Caldara points out, teachers’ union contracts make up a huge part of schools’ budgets. Not only should how that money is spent be transparent to the taxpayers, so, too, should be how that was decided. The process, not just the outcome, is the public’s business.
Of course, the opposition comes from those who would be directly affected. The Colorado Education Association announced in June that it opposes Proposition 104. And while the statewide organizations of school executives and school boards have not yet officially weighed in, it is no secret that many of their members have concerns.
A lot of those worries, however, are the same complaints always voiced in opposition to openness. Public scrutiny will interfere with the collective-bargaining process. It will lead to negotiating through the media. Public involvement will complicate the process.
But doing the right thing right often complicates matters. Fairness, effectiveness and honesty often conflict with efficiency.
Then there is money. One fear is that Proposition 104 would lead to expensive lawsuits and “compliance mandates” that will take money way from classrooms.
But that argument presumes resistance. Those costs would be easy to avoid if school boards and teachers’ unions simply followed the law and acted transparently.
And as with every discussion of schools, opponents also point to everyone’s favorite educational fetish: local control. The CEA, for example, has said it opposes Proposition 104 “because locals and their own school board should determine the best way to handle bargaining in their school district.”
But with the passage of Proposition 104, local boards could still run their districts – bargaining included – as they see fit. They just could not do it in secret.