CASTLE ROCK, CO – Expecting a bang, the Douglas County School Board got more of a whimper from Tuesday night’s monthly meeting, where union activists and school choice supporters were expected to clash. Teachers union supporters were supposed to wear red in solidarity, while school choice advocates and supporters of the board were meant to come clad in black for a balanced budget. In the end, most attendees in the packed house crowd of 200 came in neither.
The monthly board meetings have become the site of a proxy battle between the forces supporting school choice and those opposed, mostly members of the local teachers union chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
At the start of the meeting the room was so packed Douglas County AFT President Brenda Smith struggled to get in.
Douglas County’s school board has become a lightning rod for controversy in recent months over its decision to pursue a voucher program, as well as a pay for performance program that would fundamentally reform the tenure system derided by most education experts as broken. AFT worked with the district on the pay for performance plan, but is up in arms about the voucher program.
The voucher program passed on a 7-0 vote in March 2011. Eight months later all board members who ran for re-election won their races.
Distinguishing Tuesday night’s meeting from recent board meetings was the electoral majority that endorsed the board in November finally became the speaking majority during the public comment period, with supporters outnumbering opponents two to one at the microphone.
Organizers on both sides of the fight had been attempting to gin up turnout and fill speaking slots through social media and email blasts.
The first couple of speakers voiced their support for opening contract negotiations between the school district and the teachers union.
“Closed door negotiations don’t help the children or the district,” said Karin Piper. “We ought to be able to observer the bargaining of public officials.”
The board said they were taking that position under consideration and would likely have a decision soon.
While most school district negotiations with teachers unions are done behind closed doors in Colorado, the push for transparency is gaining traction in districts across the state.
Hinting at support of the open negotiations board member Doug Benevento said, “It would be mutually beneficial to do that.”
Union supporters wearing red who spoke seemed most perturbed about supposedly unspent funds, which district CFO Bonnie Betz explained came from an incorrect understanding of the budget.
On Tuesday, the district announced it had saved nearly $5 million through refinancing bonds, a result the district said was due to “sound financial management, including a solid fund balance, and strong property tax base.”
The scarlet-swathed speakers also railed against class sizes, and what they called limits to students’ education regarding an issue about setting a cap on the number of classes a high school student can take, which would help reduce class sizes.
“How can you choose to limit their education?” said Ponderosa High School social studies teacher Cheryl Heaton.
Despite the latest furor of the moment over scheduling, the real issue driving most attendees to the event was the voucher program currently working its way through the court system.
Oddly, while the voucher program was the impetus for attending for many in the crowd, it didn’t receive much attention during the public comment period, other than indirect rhetorical references to the idea of choice or “supporting” public schools.
The voucher program has put the board in the national spotlight, drawing the attention of nationally syndicated commentator George Will, who penned a recent column praising the voucher program as “an admirable plan for popular sovereignty in education – school choice.”
That’s not how the teachers union sees it. Along with the ACLU and other liberal lawsuit organizations, they succeeded in getting a Denver District judge to issue an injunction against the program, halting its implementation until the issue is settled in court.
While union members have falsely claimed the injunction meant the program was “illegal,” board member Craig Richardson said “it’s still an unsettled question” regarding the ultimate legality of the program, noting it could end up being decided by the Colorado Supreme Court or even the US Supreme Court.
“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Benevento added.