CASTLE ROCK – When the Douglas County affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers’ national labor union endorsed their favored school board candidates this month, it solidified the battle lines in a contest over who will lead the state’s top-ranking large school district.
The union-backed slate of school board candidates – Julie Keim, Bill Hodges, Barbara Chase and Ronda Scholting — will face off against pro-reform candidates Doug Benevento, Judi Reynolds, Meghann Silverthorn and University of Colorado Regent Jim Geddes in November.
The Washington, DC-based American Federation of Teachers union — part of the powerful AFL-CIO — has close ties to the Democratic Party, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Barack Obama’s re-election bid, and helping to orchestrate a high-profile teachers strike in Chicago that paralyzed the city for several weeks last year.
The controversial labor union also donated a whopping $25,000 to a pro-gun control group that campaigned on behalf of two liberal Colorado legislators who were recalled from office by their constituents this month in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The conservative blog Colorado Peak Politics also revealed that at least one of the union-favored school board candidates, Ronda Scholting, personally donated to one of the now-ex lawmakers, former state Senator and gun-control backer Angela Giron (D-Pueblo).
While most candidates are pleased to receive the public backing of advocacy groups, statements issued by Scholting, Keim, Hodges, and Chase in the wake of the union endorsement seemed to suggest that the support of the liberal labor union may be more of a curse than a blessing. All four union-backed candidates attempted to downplay the endorsement, and their connection to pro-union groups.
“I did not seek the endorsement,” Scholting told one media outlet. “Generally candidates ask for endorsements, so I was unaware of any endorsement from the union.”
Keim and Chase, also union-endorsed challengers, issued similarly tentative statements.
“I certainly did not pursue anything from them,” Keim told OurColoradoNews.
“I was not aware, nor did I request the support statement by the Union as I am running unaffiliated,” Chase told the paper.
But Douglas County Republican Party Chairman Craig Steiner isn’t buying the collective surprise expressed by the union-backed challengers.
“It seems strange that each and every candidate the union endorsed claimed to be ‘surprised’ to be endorsed,” Steiner told The Observer. “If they were all surprised to be endorsed, does that mean the union made endorsements without talking to a single candidate?”
“You’d think the union would want to get to know the people they’re endorsing before doing so,” Steiner added. “For them to endorse candidates without knowing them and without reaching out to consider other candidates in the race seems pretty reckless.”
Douglas County has become the focal point of a national tug-of-war between school reform advocates and large labor unions over the future of education.
The current school board leadership has enraged union leaders by adopting a new pay-for-performance framework for teachers, and for taking a decision last year to end the practice of using district tax dollars to pay the salaries of union executives who spent no time in the classroom.
Union leaders see those reforms as a threat, and have vowed to “spend an undetermined amount of money” on the upcoming campaign, according to a recent news report.
That doesn’t sit well with Franceen Thompson, a Douglas County parent with kids attending district schools.
“It disappoints me to listen to the criticism of the reforms because I believe the reforms are working,” said Thompson.
“Rewarding our excellent teachers incentivizes them to stay in Douglas County and also attracts excellent teachers to come to our district knowing they will be compensated based on their abilities,” Thompson told The Observer. “Why should the district reward bad teachers the same way it rewards excellent teachers?”
“There are some who are pro-union that say this election has nothing to do with the union when they know that isn’t true. This election has everything to do with the union,” Thompson added.
“The choice is simple. Choose to have an innovative reform-minded board making decisions in the best interest of kids, teachers, parents and taxpayers. Or, choose to have a board that is concerned with lining the pockets of union leadership,” Thompson said. “I prefer the first option.”
Thompson also had a message for the four candidates union-backed candidates.
“I would suggest they let everyone know they are pro-union and anti-reform,” Thompson concluded. “This way all voters would know exactly who and what they are voting for.”