Many Colorado school districts are currently in the midst of negotiating teachers union contracts. Proposition 104, which passed last November with the support of 70 percent of Colorado voters, requires that these negotiations be open to the public. In some cases, observing negotiations has been astonishingly boring. Others have been interesting. In the case of Thompson R2J, a district of about 16,000 students in Loveland, Colorado, things have gotten downright ugly as the board attempts to provide more specific guidance to its negotiating team.
It looks like things are about to get even uglier. Complete Colorado’s Sherrie Peif reports that the Colorado Education Association (CEA), the state’s powerful teachers union, has directly entered the fray. CEA is sponsoring a petition designed to force Thompson’s four-member reform majority into capitulation during the final stages of a negotiation that has grown increasingly fractious over the last few weeks.
The district has had a contract with the Thompson Education Association (TEA), the local chapter of Colorado Education Association (CEA) and National Education Association (NEA), for 37 years. As in many districts, negotiations in Thompson have most often been a simple matter of delicately opening the contract, taking a look at salaries or other very basic components, and then carefully closing the black box before placing it back on the shelf for another year.
Little or no attention is brought to pertinent arrangements that affect teachers. Colorado teachers have the right to join or not join a union. The choice can be stark: Join the union at all levels—including $563 a year shipped off to CEA and NEA—or none at all. The contract requires all new teachers to sit through up to 45 minutes of a union membership presentation. Teachers may only opt out of the presentation after listening for 10 minutes. Union officials have a vested interest in keeping such onerous arrangements in place.
The status quo in Thompson was threatened by the 2013 arrival of a reform-minded conservative majority. Under the leadership of board president Bob Kerrigan, the majority has pushed for more equitable funding for the district’s two charter schools, the expansion of public school choice in the district, and increased fiscal responsibility.
Most recently, the majority has pressed for changes to the district’s bloated, outdated, and unfair union contract. A number of commonsense changes have been brought forward in recent weeks, including restructuring or relocating some articles of the contract, building a genuine pay-for-performance pilot program, and allowing teachers to choose which organization best represents them.
All the proposals have been met with very vocal disdain by the three establishment-minded members of the board and a small but highly active subset of Thompson’s community. Last week, one board member’s motion to put together a new document clarifying the board’s intended changes for the negotiating team—an important push for clarity in a process that has often been muddled and confusing—raised the ire of reform opponents. Yet despite all the ugliness, Thompson’s debate so far has been a primarily local affair, at least on the surface.
No longer. CEA’s entrance marks a fundamental shift in Thompson’s situation. What was once a local education discussion now has become a state-level political fight. CEA president Kerrie Dallman made a splash at last week’s Thompson board meeting both in person and on Twitter. The appearance comes on the heels of being observed carrying signs at a fast-food restaurant labor protest and telling a legislative committee that “all teachers do the same job.” CEA’s petition makes clear that the organization is willing to pull out all the stops to maintain the status quo in Thompson. The petition is being pushed on social media by anti-reform groups and individuals, yet it contains no safeguards against duplicate or anonymous signings.
As of publication, more than 10 percent of the petition’s signatures are anonymous. Some of the anonymous signers have left overtly insulting or threatening comments on the petition (though these appear to have been deleted). Many other signatures are duplicates, some of which reflect single individuals signing the petition multiple times over different days.
An unknown number of the signatures have come from outside of Thompson. As Peif reports, the names of at least eight out-of-district members of CEA’s Board of Directors appear on the petition. Among them is the president of the Jefferson County Education Association, whose encouragement for TEA to “fight” echoes his earlier calls to “beat these bastards back.” There is no way of knowing how many signatures are legitimate, given the petition’s poor quality controls. Perhaps that’s the point.
While petitions are generally designed to offer a snapshot of a community’s voice, this petition seems to have been designed as a political weapon. One shouldn’t be surprised. Salsa, the company pushing the petition, exclusively partners with “left-leaning or progressive” organizations, and CEA is perhaps the state’s largest and most powerful education-related political player. Despite claims of nonpartisanship, the organization’s one-sided campaign contributions make clear where its political allegiances lie.
What is surprising is how quickly the anti-reform camp has jumped on the bandwagon. Groups that once decried the involvement of “out-of-town” interests are now eager to embrace the involvement of even larger external interests that align with them politically. And despite constant calls for transparency and accusations of secrecy against reform-minded board members, these groups have made little effort to disclose the petition’s sponsor or its potential motivations before asking for signatures. CEA itself has refrained from disclosing its involvement in the petition or the district. Strangely absent in all of this is the usual anti-reform rhetoric about the “politicization” of education.
The two “sides” of any debate will always disagree with one another. In many cases, those disagreements get heated, and that’s okay. This is how we make progress. But it is critically important that both parties remember where their responsibilities lie. In Thompson School District, the board’s responsibility is to represent its constituents to the best of its ability, not CEA or its allies.
Ross Izard is an education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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