DENVER — When a handful of teachers critical of the Douglas County School Board called a press conference in early summer to announce they were seeking new jobs in more union-friendly school districts, it triggered a new front within the wider debate between unions and school reform advocates about the future of Douglas County Schools.
Led by some of the nation’s largest unions and liberal advocacy organizations, critics of the Douglas County School Board and Administration have launched a barrage of attacks at the district in the last year. Among the union charges leveled, this one: that school choice, performance pay for teachers and other reforms enacted by the school board were chasing off Douglas County teachers.
Brenda Smith, the head of the local AFL-CIO affiliate in Douglas County, made the union-case in a Denver Post editorial in June.
“All evidence points to a similar (teacher) exodus,” Smith said. “Why are teachers fleeing Douglas County schools? Because teachers are not valued, trusted or engaged.”
But a report released by the Colorado Department of Education shows that, if it was a mass teacher exodus state and national union officials were after, those efforts failed.
According to the report released by the state’s education department this summer, Douglas County’s teacher retention rate is better than the Colorado average, and the number of teachers who left DougCo was actually down from prior years.
In 2012, Douglas County had a 13.2% teacher turnover rate. Amid union cries of teacher boycott in 2013, the turnover rate actually declined to 11.7%.
In her Denver Post editorial, local AFL-CIO chief Smith said the teacher turn-over rate was up 42% over previous years. Smith did not site a source for her numbers.
“There just isn’t any question: the union doesn’t like the school board, and they tried to fan the flames of a teacher boycott,” said John Carson, the School Board President
“But the results are in and they are clear: the union boycott failed. Our local AFL-CIO representative said the teacher turnover rate was up 42%. Like so many things the local union says, that statement is true only if you divide it by about 4.”
Supporters of Douglas County Schools, and members of the school board themselves, say the summer-long hub-ub surrounding teachers retention rates is part and parcel with the union’s wider plan to displace the board during this fall’s election as payback for the school board’s decision last year to stop collecting dues that national unions re-direct to favored political campaigns. The school district also ended a years-long policy of paying union salaries with district money, a move that sparked a blood-feud between the school board and union activists.
School District backers say angst over union funding is the reason for the attacks – attacks they say are unsupported by fact.
They point to the teacher retention debate as proof.
In total, the school district expects to have about 380 of 3,400 teachers – roughly 11 percent –turn-over between the 2012/2013 school year and the 2013/2014 fall semester.
The school district’s attrition rate is normal for large districts in the state. Littleton, Cherry Creek and Boulder also average plus or minus 10 percent attrition rate for the past few years.
Denver and Aurora have actually seen a larger number of teachers leave, closer to 20 percent.
Still, favorable retention statistics are little solace to the school district’s sharpest critics. A 9News report earlier this summer focused on two teachers, John Kissingford and Carlye Holladay, who said they are leaving a Parker high school because they have had enough with the central administration.
Kissingford and Holladay told the Denver TV outlet that teachers feel “undervalued, unappreciated, and they’re looking for other options,” because “the relationship between teachers and central administration has become unfortunately adversarial.” Holladay and Kissingford said that teachers are particularly upset about the district’s new teacher evaluations.
Both teachers are members of the teachers union, and Holladay was also a union leader heavily involved in the collective bargaining negotiations last year, a tipping point in the struggle between the local union and the school board that ended contentiously when the school district decertified the union, and cut off its public funding.
While pointed, Kissingford and Holladay’s recriminations represent a minority of teachers, according to the results of the recent Colorado TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading & Learning) survey.
According to the survey, a higher proportion of Douglas County teachers said that there was “an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect in their school (79 percent), that their school leadership communicates clear expectations to students and parents (87 percent), that the faculty and leadership have a shared vision (77 percent) and that the school leadership communicates with the faculty adequately (82 percent)” than did educators in other parts of the state.
80 percent of teachers surveyed strongly agreed that “school leadership consistently supports teachers” in Douglas County, and 85 percent strongly agreed that “overall, their school is a good place to work and learn.”
School Board President Carson said he believes the real reason for the attempted teacher boycott is simple retribution by the union toward the school district for no longer collecting union dues and no longer paying union salaries.
“What’s really at issue here though is that we took money away from the union and we’re giving it directly to teachers,” Carson told 9News at the time. “We’re not paying union officers’ salaries anymore with taxpayer dollars.”