The teachers’ union representing the Douglas County school system has lost one-quarter of its membership, signaling a growing frustration within the ranks that dues are used to finance politics instead of professional development.
The significant drop in membership of the Douglas County Federation (DCF) was revealed in a July 21 letter from two board members to Courtney Smith, union president, and was based on the union’s most recently released tax returns.
The letter pointed to the drop in membership as undeniable proof that teachers had chosen the district over the union and the need for major changes within the organization.
The letter called for union leaders to “unequivocally reject” five financial practices, including the use of dues for elections and a means of political leverage on the board, demands the district pay dues without providing a return of services, and failing to use union funds for professional teacher development.
“You should strongly stand for not pulling money out of the classroom to run a union,” said the letter signed by Kevin Larsen, board president, and Doug Benevento, vice president.
The school board officials noted that prior union leadership had remained uncommitted to its members and their professional development, and instead pushed funds towards political endeavors and seemingly subjective wage scales.
“It was a system that left the impression of cronyism,” said the letter. “Your leadership should put teachers first.”
Benevento told The Observer in an interview that board officials believe even more members may have left the union since the last numbers were provided.
“That was a year ago,” Benevento said. “I think their membership is probably even more significantly down by now.”
Union-backed board candidates were defeated in the last 11 elections in Douglas County according to the letter, providing further evidence of the union’s failure to meet the needs and expectations of teachers and voters within the community.
“I think the community is telling them: stop trying to buy board members that will reward you with a contract that will pay big money out of the classroom to pay union leadership,” said Benevento in the interview.
“Start investing in teachers and professional development for them, and stop investing in politics and in protecting [your] own salaries and benefits,” Benevento said.
Contrary to the acute drop in union membership, 95 percent of highly effective teachers and 93 percent of effective teachers have stayed within the district thus far, pointing to the success of the district’s pay-for-performance system.
“It’s very, very clear that our pay-for-performance system works,” said Benevento. “The union should stop trying to bring back the one-size fits-all, union-approved wage scale. We firmly believe teachers are professionals and need to be compensated like professionals.”
Earlier this month, the Colorado Department of Education rejected five union challenges to the Douglas County school district’s pay-for-performance program.
In the letter, the board further urged the union to establish financial integrity, accountability, and reconciliation with the community, saying the organization should take such action if they “seek to stop teachers from fleeing [their] union.”
The school board officials offered pointed advice for Smith, who took over as president of the DCF in January.
“Your predecessor failed because she believed that attacking the district and attempting to foment crisis would help elect union candidates,” said the letter.
Instead, board officials believe the teachers union must take firm steps away from past practices in order to retain their membership and reestablish a relationship with the Douglas County community.
“It is clear that voters and teachers believe that the leadership of the DCF is not in touch with the community,” said the letter. “As the leadership of the district, we sincerely hope that you reengage with the community in a productive manner that recognizes that union leadership must disavow the past practice of attacks and untruths. If you choose that path, we are confident you can reconcile with our community.”
Benevento said the district-union relationship is now in the union’s hands, but so far the union has been largely unresponsive to the messages being sent by the district, community, and former union members.
“Unfortunately [Smith] didn’t seem to want to go that direction in a recent talk that she gave,” said Benevento. “But we’re hopeful that she will read these signs for what they are: a rejection of their past political operation and their members wanting to refocus on education in Douglas County.”
“We’re hopeful that Courtney will hear that message and that she will respond to it in a manner that turns the union’s attention back to its members and back to maintaining and improving educational excellence in Douglas County,” said Benevento.