DENVER – When the head of the national union responsible for the teacher strike in Chicago made a trip to Douglas County schools to express “solidarity” with its local union chapter, the message from high-profile backers of Douglas County’s School reforms was loud and clear: this is Douglas County, not Chicago.
In a letter sent to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten the day she arrived in Douglas County to meet with local union operatives, State Senator Ted Harvey (R-Douglas County) abruptly told the union chief, “This is Colorado, not Chicago, and while you of course are free to speak your mind, our community is not interested in union bullying, strikes, ham-handed petitions or any of the other disingenuous tactics you embraced in Chicago last month.”
“Douglas County Schools are on the front-edge of school reform, and no amount of intimidation from you is going to change that” Harvey continued. “Indeed, the local chapter of AFT has already spent too much time organizing protests, circulating petitions, and dropping hateful fliers that attack the proponents of school reform.”
Weingarten heads the national union that organized the Chicago teacher’s strike, a strike that pitted old allies against one another. On one side was Weingarten and thousands of union card-carrying teachers, and on the other, Chicago Mayor and former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel — usually a reliable friend to labor unions – who joined a chorus of parents and school reform advocates in arguing that the union’s opposition to performance evaluation was unreasonable.
Many of the same arguments and fault-lines that played themselves out in the Chicago imbroglio are also at work in the Douglas County fight.
The hard-hitting back and forth comes in the wake of the school board’s enactment of sweeping reforms that the union has fought tooth and nail. Among the school boards reforms: a performance pay for teachers program that unions have decried as upsetting the seniority system, and a move by the school district to stop using public dollars to subsidize the salaries and other expenses of union executives.
The school district also cut-off collective bargaining negotiations with the union earlier this year, and for good measure, gave Douglas County teachers a pay raise too, viewed by some as a sharp stick in the eye to union bosses.
For their part, Douglas County officials have said the pay raise is proof that teachers don’t need unions to get a fair shake.
In spite of a teacher pay bump, last week the teacher’s union announced that it was circulating a petition of no-confidence against the District’s Superintendent, Liz Fagan.
The union did not immediately report the number of teachers who had actually signed the union petition, but critics of the union have noted that the vast majority of Douglas County teachers – some 98 percent – signed and returned their individual contracts before a June deadline, committing to return to work this school year without a union agreement.
Meanwhile, Harvey’s letter to Weingarten last week may have been the first shot across the bow, but it certainly wasn’t the last. A pro-reform group, the Center for Union Facts, launched a hard hitting TV-ad campaign that takes AFT to task for dividing Douglas County Schools. The group has also launched a website – www.IStandWithDougCoKids.com.
“The same union that took thousands of teachers out on strike in Chicago is bringing its slash and burn tactics to Colorado,” said the group’s director J. Justin Wilson. “Studies have shown that teacher quality is the most important in -class factor when it comes to student success. Instead of paying people simply for sticking around … we should pay teachers based on their talent and how well they educate our kids.”
The group’s TV ad can be viewed below.