LOVELAND – Teachers unions and parents across the state not happy with decisions made by their local school boards have coined the phrases “stand up 4 kids” or “deformers” to get their message out. But in Loveland, just having their voices heard doesn’t seem to be enough.
Parents and teachers upset with the Thompson School District Board of Education have become so loud and unruly that the school district is now paying for Loveland police officers to patrol the room. Last Wednesday it went one step further, however, when police escorted three members of the board to their cars after the meeting for added security.
“I’ve lived here forever well over 50 years. I just don’t know what has happened to our community,” said board member Donna Rice. “Some of these people are my friends and neighbors that maybe have a different political registration. I am disappointed, extremely disappointed. Loveland is not that kind of community.”
When the grandmother who spent part of her life teaching elementary school decided to run for Board of Education more than a year ago, she did so because she believed the district could improve student achievement by focusing more tax dollars on students, and wanted to push for that.
Board vice president Bryce Carlson’s goals were similar. The father of two small children, with another on the way, wanted to make sure the schools were at their best by the time his kids were ready to start.
But now the two, along with board president Bob Kerrigan, have begun to spend evenings in need of police protection and wondering what will happen next. Constant interruptions by attendees have been commonplace. Members of the Thompson Education Association flood the meetings, yell, call the board member names, and make fun of them while they are trying to conduct the business of the district.
Carlson, a music and worship pastor, said it’s disturbing.
“I’ve tried from the start to put kids first in every decision I make,” Carlson said. “That’s what I’m still trying to do. Needing an escort is concerning to me personally. I wish as leaders we could disagree on issues and not need to get to that point.”
Thompson Education Association President Andy Crisman said he was not aware the board members felt threatened.
“I am puzzled as well,” Crisman said. “Over the last year, I’ve had a number of rather positive and congenial conversations with directors Rice and (Carl) Langner in particular and a number of conversations with director Kerrigan. While we don’t always agree on stuff, we’ve had constructive conversations. As crowds get bigger people can get nervous.”
It’s unclear why the police felt they needed to walk just those members to their car. Rice and Carlson both said they didn’t ask, and district personnel say they didn’t request it.
Michael Hausmann, public information officer for Thompson, said the growing crowd size caused the district to pay for the police protection to begin with, but he didn’t know why the escort.
“We’ve had a big surge in the number of people coming to the meetings,” Hausmann said. “We wanted to make sure security is always a priority. We wanted to be proactive and respecting the fact more people were attending.”
This was the first time the extra protection included door-to-door service. And more disturbing, Rice and Carlson said, was that it was only for the three members of the board that are at the center of controversy in the community – Kerrigan, Carlson, and Rice. Langner, who is also associated with the “conservative majority,” was not present last Wednesday. Denise Montagu, Pam Howard, and Lori Hvizda Ward, whose comments often spur reactions in the crowds, walked to their cars alone.
“It was not more aggressive at this meeting,” Carlson said. “But just given the nature of where we are in negotiations, tensions are high. This was the first time I was escorted. I certainly would hope that kind of thing is not necessary.”
The Thompson School District, like others across Colorado, is in the middle of contract negotiations with its teachers union. However, several topics – a pay-for-performance pilot program to replace the district’s current performance management incentives, the transition out of a long-used severance option for teachers willing to take lower pay during their career, medical insurance responsibilities and Public Employee Retirement Association contributions – have teachers on edge.
During the last several meetings, Kerrigan has attempted to maintain order, taking issue with the behavior of the audience and board members Montagu, Howard, and Ward during the meetings.
“I just can’t believe it’s our teachers,” Rice said. “Is it the union trying to justify its existence?”
Rice said she believes outside sources are causing the problems.
“Their fear is being fanned by those who don’t like this new board,” Rice said. “It’s coming from those who want to make our tenure miserable and paint us in a bad light. I do believe it’s outside sources putting words in our mouths, and it’s frightening the teachers.”
Last week, Complete Colorado learned the Colorado Education Association was behind an online petition asking the Thompson board to reconsider a decision made a previous meeting. It included signatures from a large portion of CEA board members – many of whom come from other districts.
Crisman said he continually reminds his membership to behave professionally while they are at the meetings, but passions run high during this time of year.
“It’s been my take all along that we are at our best when we are able to talk with each other,” Crisman said. “When teachers have a voice at the table, when the community has a voice at the table, and when administration has a voice at the table, we all come out stronger because we have a collective buy-in. I consistently encourage my members to go to meetings, but to listen respectively and to limit their side conversations. But passions will be passions.”
Rice, who spent more than 20 years in law and 10 years in education, said the situation is growing uncomfortable, though she plans to continue to work toward the end result.
“This has been a very contentious school board (since) the election,” Rice said. “The crowd gets rude, laughs and makes fun of me for what I’m saying. It’s just a strange situation, but I think we all have the same goals, even those in the audience, and that’s to improve student achievement.”