Douglas County, Colorado school board president says voters prefer student-based reforms over union greed

Oct 10, 2013 by

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. – Citizens dedicated to school reform usually have the most success in failing school districts.

That’s because desperate parents want something better for their kids.

The Douglas County school district, located between Denver and Colorado Springs, is hardly a failing school district. It’s located in one of the wealthiest parts of the state, and its academic record has been outstanding for years.

Yet a group of reformers won control of the board several years ago with a solid mandate from local voters.

The new board pushed through a series of ambitious changes, including a decentralization plan that cut the administrative budget and put millions of dollars in the hands of neighborhood schools, a policy that allows the district to pay teachers based on their market value, and a pay-for-performance system that rewards teachers who produce the best results.

It also took hard stands on controversial issues, adopting a resolution in opposition of Common Core academic standards, and a resolution in opposition of Amendment 66, a proposal on the November ballot to raise state income taxes to support public schools.

And perhaps most noteworthy, the school board stunned everyone by developing its own private school voucher system, then severing the district’s relationship with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – the local teachers union.

All of those moves have made the current school board a prime target for local and national union activists.

Four of the seven reformers on the board are up for re-election in November. The teachers union and its allies are pulling out all the stops to defeat those members, win back those seats and work toward regaining control of the district.

As one columnist recently wrote, “This is a pivotal election with national ramifications. Teachers unions are the greatest obstacle to substantive public school reform and want desperately to strangle the Dougco non-union baby in its crib.”

Union activists are circulating a video in the district, critical of the school board, called “The Reformers.”

A few months ago labor activists held an “informational meeting” and sent out a general invitation to the public. School board President John Carson decided to attend, since the meeting was in the district he represents.

He was kicked out of the event, and at the next board meeting an angry union official publicly accused Carson of crashing the meeting, and produced an invitation that specifically excluded current board members.

Carson and others say that wasn’t the invitation that was originally posted online.

Meanwhile, a local media personality who’s running for the board with the union’s endorsement was caught altering an audio tape of her opponent, making it seem like the incumbent was insulting local voters.

And last week the union called for a rally to protest the school board’s decision to oppose Amendment 66. But labor leaders asked their members to leave their union signs at home, so the rally would seem like a general community uprising against the board.

But none of that is bothering the current board members, including Carson, who is term-limited and not on the ballot this year. They believe the community likes a school board that’s more concerned about students and families than politically-motivated labor unions.

“There’s a certain group of people who attack the district because they don’t like school choice or pay- for-performance,” said Carson, who recently sat down with EAGnews for an interview. “But I’m comfortable we will win because it’s pretty clear the community supports parental choice, trimming the bureaucracy and empowering principals.”

‘A more dynamic system’

Carson was elected to the board in 2005, and for two years was the lone reformer.

But like-minded members were elected in 2007, 2009 and 2011, and the reformers currently hold all seven seats on the board.

They haven’t wasted any time enacting their agenda, which was always focused on school choice.

They put out a request for proposals for new charter schools in the district, and even helped one charter operator finance a new school.

And in 2011 they went even further. The Douglas County district became the first in the nation to establish its own private school voucher program.

That means the district happily held the doors open for as many as 500 students who wanted to transfer to private schools, and allowed them to take 75 percent of their per-pupil state aid to help pay for tuition. The district kept the other 25 percent to cover the administrative costs of the program.

Most public school officials around the nation are adamantly opposed to voucher programs, because their districts lose state money when students transfer. But Douglas County board members are firmly committed to school choice, regardless of the circumstances.

“(The choice of schools) should be up to the parents of Douglas County, not the school district,” Carson said. “We have very good schools, so we’ve never had a concern about losing a lot of students. But we set up the voucher program because all students learn differently and their parents should have the freedom to determine the best fit.”

Nobody was surprised when the union objected to the voucher program, and the American Civil Liberties Union (along with various other groups) challenged it in court. A District Court granted an injunction in August, 2010, temporarily halting the program after some voucher students in private schools were already attending classes.

The same judge then ruled the program unconstitutional on the grounds that it used public money for the operation of religious schools.

“I think we put the best voucher program together that’s ever been put together,” Carson said. “We hired a fabulous lawyer who made sure we were compliant with the law and the state and federal constitutions. We got a bum decision from the District Court judge. The case wasn’t even heard in Douglas County. The ACLU named the state board of education as a co-defendant, and since the board is based in Denver they filed the lawsuit in Denver and a Denver judge got to decide.

“I think we would have done a lot better if a Douglas County judge had been allowed to decide.”

The school board challenged the original decision and won at the appellate level, where the judge ruled against the ACLU on all points of contention.

The ACLU has appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, and the justices have yet to decide whether they will hear the case. In the meantime the original injunction remains in place and the voucher program is stuck on hold for the third straight year.

“Under state law, until the highest court has the chance to hear a case, we can’t get started,” Carson said. “We would have been in the third year of the program by now. But I think we’ll be in good shape. The appellate court decision was very solid. It’s not the school district funding the private schools, it’s the parents taking their share of state money and funding the schools.”

Carson says the district has spent about $1 million in legal costs to defend the voucher program, but the bills have been completely covered by a private foundation that supports school choice.

Some people in the education establishment insist that voucher proponents hate public schools. Carson insists that’s not the case.

“The school board members have 19 children between us that are, or were recently, in school, and just about all of our kids attend traditional neighborhood schools in the district,” said Carson, who added that his own children attend public schools. “But we push school choice because we think it’s good for families. It’s wonderful to have those choices available in our district.

“If 10 percent want another choice, I think the school district should make that choice available. The more options students have, the more all the schools improve. They’re challenged. It leads to a more dynamic system.”

So why would the teachers union object? Perhaps because fewer students could lead to less demand for teachers, and fewer teachers produce less dues revenue. They also don’t appreciate the fact that private school teachers generally aren’t union members.

“The teachers unions are about salaries and benefits and dues and politics,” Carson said. “They are not about putting students first. That would be a very difficult statement to refute.”

The end of a fruitless relationship

Just as the news about the district’s voucher program was sinking in, the school board caught the nation by surprise again by parting ways with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers.

Colorado school districts are not legally bound to maintain collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions. In Douglas County the break came after about months of fruitless negotiations.

Carson said there were two major issues that prevented the negotiation of a new union contract.

“We did not want to continue to pay the salaries of union officers who didn’t teach,” Carson said. “We were paying out $300,000 per year to union officers who were on full-time leave and didn’t teach a minute.

“We also told the union, if you want us to collect $1.3 million per year in union dues on your behalf, you have to start spending that right here in Douglas County on the teachers who pay the dues. Their dirty little secret is that almost all of that money had been going to the national AFT (American Federation of Teachers).

“In 2009, for example, out of that $1.3 million about $850,000 went to the national AFT for political purposes. Another couple hundred thousand went to the state AFT. From what we could figure, they were only spending about $4,000 locally for teacher training.”

“The one other thing is that we wanted them to agree to stop undermining the superintendent, which is what they were constantly doing.”

The union refused to budge on those issues, so the board withdrew its recognition of the DCFT as the bargaining agent for teachers.

“Our experience was that we would have done a contract with the union if they would have respected proper roles and recognized that policy decisions are made by the elected school board and superintendent, and their role was to represent teachers,” Carson said.

“Their problem is they wanted to run the school district and decide all of those policy issues, and not focus on the interests of teachers.”

Carson said the union hasn’t been missed, by teachers or the community. He said most people have come to understand that teachers unions are little more than a money-making arm of the Democratic Party.

“Most of the teachers have no interest in the union,” Carson said. “The union is just a little group of people who have figured out a great way to be paid to be political activists. They do provide support for some teachers who should go. They will go to bat for teachers who are low performers or who have disciplinary issues. They don’t really do anything else.”

The split with the union has made the board a national target for the American Federation of Teachers, the Douglas County union’s national organization.

AFT President Rhonda Weingarten visited Denver last year and declared that the Douglas County board “is only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.”

Carson said Weingarten’s motives are transparent.

“They’re upset because they lost a lot of money,” he said. “They lost all of those dues – or at least we aren’t collecting the money for them anymore. They’ve been going door-to-door to teachers’ homes, begging them to pay dues money. We’ve had teachers complain about that.”

Union officials made a big splash in the press earlier this year, predicting that many quality teachers would leave Douglas County schools due to the loss of their union.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, Carson said.

“They used that as a scare tactic last spring, but when the data came in our departure rate was right in line with where it’s been historically,” Carson said. “We had a 91 percent renewal rate for contracts for people who were eligible. We actually hired more teachers from surrounding districts than those who left.

“For the 400 teaching positions we had open this year, we had 14,000 applicants. People are lining up to teach here because it’s the highest performing school in the state. We have no issues attracting highly qualified teachers to our district.”

Douglas County, Colorado school board president says voters prefer student-based reforms over union greed – powered by Education Action Group Foundation, Inc..

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