Two weeks after a Fort Collins judge granted the Thompson Education Association (TEA) a temporary injunction to keep in place the 2014-15 union contract until a breach of contract case is decided, board members for the school district voted to appeal the process.
“Colorado law is clear about the fact that school districts are not required to bargain or come to an agreement with teachers unions,” said Bob Kerrigan, president of the Thompson School District Board of Education after a 90-minute executive hearing to get legal advice on the issue. “The Colorado Constitution is also clear that elected school boards have the authority to exercise judgment over important decisions that affect students, teachers, or staff, including decisions related to collective bargaining.”
Kerrigan’s statement was part of a motion to appeal the hearing.
The underlying issue in the dispute is whether the board negotiated in good faith. TEA says it did not, arguing that board members were not clear about their concerns, and that the board thus had a contractual obligation to ratify one of the two tentative agreements that emerged from negotiations.
Board majority members argued that they did negotiate in good faith, and that good faith means only that an attempt must be made to reach a satisfactory conclusion, not that an agreement will necessarily be reached.
They cite an extension of negotiations past a contractual deadline, numerous instances of verbal guidance during board meetings, and voluntarily agreeing to participate in non-binding arbitration as evidence of good faith negotiation.
An MOU is a collective bargaining agreement with a teachers association that outlines what benefits and privileges the association and its members have. It also recognizes the association as the sole authority to bargain collectively on behalf of all teachers in the district.
Before the executive session, several residents and teachers asked the board not to appeal, citing concerns about using taxpayer money to fund the legal defense.
However, the board announced Wednesday that the district received a $150,000 grant from the Daniels Fund— a Colorado-based foundation that offers education grants and scholarships in the name of its founder Bill Daniels, who is considered one of the pioneers of cable television.
The money will be used to pay legal fees related to the ongoing legal dispute between the district and TEA.
“I support local democracy and an elected school board’s constitutional and statutory right to make judgment calls in the best interests of its district,” Kerrigan said. “I wholeheartedly reject the idea that an elected body can be forced—legally or otherwise—to accept terms with which it disagrees. I will continue standing by those principles as we move forward in this process using the generous donation we received this evening from the Daniels Fund.”
In what has become a common occurrence, the board voted 4-3 to appeal the case, with Kerrigan and members Donna Rice, Carl Langner, and Bryce Carlson voting in favor of the motion. Members Pam Howard, Denise Montagu, and Lori Hvizda-Ward voted no.
Before the vote, board member Lori Hvizda-Ward seemingly violated executive session rules by disclosing during open session what was discussed during a closed, confidential meeting between board members and their legal counsel.
“I cannot believe I’m going to say this,” she said just before she revealed that board attorney Brad Miller secured the grant with help from the Independence Institute*. “The board did not pursue this. I knew nothing about this. It was undertaken by Mr. Miller without direction of this board.”
The move by Larimer County District Court Judge Julie Field to grant the injunction was unprecedented in Colorado courts, as it is the only time a Colorado judge has overruled school board local control by enforcing a rejected collective bargaining agreement.
Attendance at the meeting was unusually sparse, including the absence of TEA President Andy Crisman. A TEA representative explained during a confrontational public comment that teachers union members were instead using the time to campaign against reform candidates in the district. The representative also cited a number of reasons that reform efforts are “generally detrimental” to education during her statement.
Despite very light attendance, the announcement still upset a few people who observed the meeting.
“I wish you cared as much about children,” yelled Mike Shearer, interrupting the meeting and prompting Kerrigan to tell him to calm down. Shearer was on the 2014-15 MOU negotiating team, while his wife was president of the TEA.
The yelling continued after the meeting.
“A recall is next,” yelled Gil Barela, a Loveland resident and long-time union supporter, after the meeting.
Others gathered in the parking lot to complain about the decision, and then took to Facebook Thursday morning. They questioned the Daniels Fund donation and sought legal advice from their own outside source in Wendy McCord, an inactive attorney and one of three Jefferson County residents who initiated a recall effort of three of that school district’s board of education members.
Before the vote, Carlson reminded the crowd why the district was in court in the first place.
“It’s important to keep in mind that TEA is the one suing us,” Carlson said. “And Mr. Miller is not the one litigating the case for us. This is an important issue of local control that we believe we need to protect.”
*Disclosure: The author of this article is employed by the Independence Institute.
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