LONE TREE — A handful of protesters squared off on opposite sides of the Denver South Marriott hotel in the afternoon sun on Friday, while around 200 patrons inside the hotel met over lunch to raise money for Douglas County students.
The event, sponsored by the non-partisan Douglas County Educational Foundation (DCEF), allowed luncheon attendees to contribute up to $1,000 for everything from backpacks and school supplies to student iPads and travel to national scholastic competitions.
Some of those who came to support the foundation’s effort, like State Representative Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch), made reference to the protest outside the venue.
“I hope you enjoyed our version of the Sharks and the Jets outside,” McNulty said, drawing laughter from those in attendance. “Anyone can pick up a sign and make a statement, but it takes leadership, vision and action to make a difference, and that’s what the [Douglas County] school board is doing.”
McNulty’s comment was a not-so-subtle jab at the small group of demonstrators organized by the pro-union group Douglas County Parents (DCP) gathered outside the hotel.
The group made an email appeal early Friday encouraging opponents of the reform-minded school board to arrive at the luncheon early “so that lunch attendees can see our signs.”
“Your presence will show that you believe it is time to restore parent voices to our school district,” the email added.
But supporters of the school board say claims that district officials are locking parents out of school management decisions simply don’t add up. They point to the findings of a recent state survey suggesting that teachers in Douglas County generally have a higher degree of faith in their school leadership and enjoy greater engagement from parents and communities than do teachers in other parts of the state.
Some of those school board backers showed up on Friday as well, engaging in their own counter-demonstration against pro-union picketers in front of the Marriott.
One of the counter-demonstrators held a sign emblazoned with the message “We Love DougCo Teachers, Not the AFL-CIO,” a reference to a school board decision last year that put an end to the practice of using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the salaries of union executives.
“What we found was that the union wasn’t representing the interests of teachers. It was basically a political organization that took the dues and sent it to Washington, D.C.,” Douglas County School Board President John Carson recently told 850-KOA’s Mike Rosen of the decision to cut off public funding for the union. “We want the money in the classroom, [so] we cut off the [union executives] salaries that were being paid with taxpayers’ dollars.”
Before the board’s move, a number of full-time union leaders were taking district salaries despite spending no time in the classroom.
Despite the withering criticism from pro-union political groups, however, education reform backers remain optimistic that the school board’s reforms will help Douglas County recruit and retain the best teachers, and maintain the district’s high standards.
Inside the Marriott on Friday though, supporters of the fundraising effort were more interested in listening to Amy Sherman discuss some of DCEF’s recent success stories — like the foundation’s participation in an Eight Grade Career Expo, and another effort that raised $20,000 to provide iPads to students at Sedalia Elementary School — than in the dueling demonstrators outside.
“This event was all about raising dollars to support our students, our teachers and our schools,” said Cinamon Watson, a spokesperson for the district. “We were pleased to have over 200 community and business leaders to celebrate Douglas County School District.”
“It is disappointing that outside labor groups continue to try to disrupt these kinds of events,” said school board member Doug Benavento.
“The purpose of this event was to help students in the district,” Benavento added. “But they are outside causing disruption and chaos.”
“The protesters were an unfortunate distraction,” concluded Watson. “Frankly it’s shocking that they would try and turn a celebration like this into some sort of political forum.”