HIGHLANDS RANCH – A handful of pro-union demonstrators gathered in Highlands Ranch last week to campaign against the Douglas County Board of Education. They were joined by a smattering of counter-demonstrators – including former teachers – who came out to show their support for the school board.
As the snow fell, a few supporters of the teachers’ union waved signs emblazoned with slogans like “Teachers Deserve a Voice and Fair Pay.” It’s possible the cold weather contributed to the sparse attendance at the union event, although similar union protests in warmer weather have also failed to attract much participation. Last August, a planned picket drew a mere eight protestors.
One particularly outspoken man who identified himself only as “Kevin” during last week’s demonstration claimed to be a teacher in Douglas County with children attending district schools. He accused the Board of Education, and specifically Doug Benevento, of putting radioactive material into people’s water.
Kevin – who refused to give his last name or reveal the Douglas County school he worked in – claimed that “[T]here’s been a few years ago when he [Benevento] was for dumping enriched uranium into drinking water for a neighborhood up north back when he was involved with some other state government.”
When asked to explain the strange allegation in more detail, Kevin instead shifted his criticism to the district’s fund balance – a common talking point for critics of the district who have assailed board members for their frugal budgeting.
The district has maintained a multi-million dollar surplus during one of the worst recessions in recent memory, allowing them to provide an across-the-board pay raise to teachers.
But supporters of the union have complained that the board’s conservative fiscal policies are resulting in fewer dollars being spent in the classroom, and argue that the board should spend the funds down faster.
Board members counter that spending decisions rest increasingly with individual schools. The board has adopted a policy that allows school principals independently to bank unspent funding and save it for future needs or multi-year projects like tech labs and science centers, instead of requiring principals to “use it or lose it” each year, as most school districts do.
Another driver of the district’s fund balance is a board policy requiring the district to maintain a $15 million cushion, or about 3 percent of total annual spending, which protects against sudden changes in per-pupil funding from the state. Past reductions have led to teacher layoffs, cutbacks in electives, and larger class sizes.
In 2012, two credit rating agencies — Moody’s and Fitch–rewarded the district with one of the highest credit ratings in the state due in part to the board’s fiscal policies. The higher credit rating has reduced the district’s interest costs, leaving more money for the classroom, according to the district.
Others, like State Senator Ted Harvey (R-Highlands Ranch), suggest that the union’s demand for additional spending has more to do with the union itself than it does students. They say that the real goal of some school board opponents is to push money into union pockets, not classrooms.
Last year, the board voted to end the practice of using public dollars to subsidize the salaries of several union executives. Between 2007 and 2010, union officials collected more than $1 million in district funds — despite spending no time in the classroom.
“All you have to do is just follow the money,” Harvey said last week. ”Last year the Douglas County School Board announced it would no longer spend taxpayer dollars that should be spent in the classroom to pay the salaries of union organizers – and now the AFL-CIO is trying to bully our superintendent and school board into giving them $1.2 million for union salaries once again.”
But the fund balance isn’t the only thing union supporters have taken issue with. They have also blasted the board’s decision to overhaul teacher hiring and compensation practices.
That’s because the district has sought to de-emphasize seniority, instead paying teachers according to how effective they are and how difficult it is to fill certain positions.
That change has riled some union supporters who object to paying some teachers more than others based on qualifications rather than seniority.
“[The school board is] trying to push through their evaluation system, the market-based pay that is undeveloped – it’s never been vetted. It’s one man creating the entire system – it’s one man throwing his business school application into the public sector,” said Kevin.
Others disagree, arguing that paying higher salaries to better performing teachers will help improve student achievement and the overall quality of education.
“Rewarding teachers merely for occupying time would be a poor use of tax dollars,” said Ben DeGrow, a Senior Policy Analyst for Education at the Independence Institute. “Douglas County’s commitment to paying educators based on specialized knowledge and skills, as well as their ability to improve results for students, should attract the brightest and best into their classrooms. District leaders deserve praise for raising the bar for public education in a thoughtful and comprehensive way.”
Four of the board’s seven seats are up for election in November, and last week’s demonstration by union supporters was just the latest in what is shaping up to be a heated campaign with national implications.
Audio of Kevin’s uranium dumping allegations against Benevento are embedded below.