Ties Bind Conservative School Board's Anti-Union Attacks

The most recent battle in the conservative attack on teachers’ unions erupted in Loveland’s Thompson School District. The fight comes in the wake of similar — and perhaps politically connected — squabbles in Jefferson County and Douglas County where conservative board members have tried to bulldoze the unions — and in JeffCo may get recalled instead.

Those fighting the conservative Thompson school-board majority claim its members share anti-union goals with members in DougCo and JeffCo: Gut the union and institute a pay-for-performance system that critics claim will create unfair wages for teachers.

For seven months the Thompson Education Association tried to negotiate a contract with the board. The board voted twice during the spring, on a 4-3 vote, to reject the contract.

Once union contract negotiations failed, the issue went to an independent arbitrator. According to the arbitrator’s report, presented at an August 19 meeting, board member Donna Rice, also part of the conservative majority, stated to a teacher that she voted against the contract because “I hate the union,” that all unions are “bad” and that it was her intention to get rid of it.

Fellow member Bryce Carlson, in a letter to the Reporter Herald published this summer, said he objected to one organization having an “exclusive privilege” to represent every teacher in the district.

In his letter, Carlson also suggested removing the union as the exclusive negotiator to be “more inclusive” of all teachers.

Thompson District’s conservative board members, Carlson, Rice, Carl Langner and board President Bob Kerrigan did not respond to messages from The Colorado Independent.

About 70 percent of Thompson Valley teachers belong to the union, well above the required “50 percent plus one” district rule that has guided contract negotiations for the past 37 years.

The teacher’s union decided the board was acting in bad faith and had breached contract — also claiming the board was trying to get rid of the Thompson Education Association as the teachers’ sole bargaining agent.

The arbitrator agreed with the union that the board acted in bad faith on a number of points, including that the board was so vague about what it wanted in the contract that it left their own negotiators at times guessing at what should be included. The arbitrator recommended the board hold a new vote on the contract. Instead, the board voted 4-3 to reject the arbitrator’s report and to reject the contract a third time.

“This is about an elected school board that is executing its constitutional authority to make judgements about what is best for our kids, our district, and it saddens me that this arbitrator assumes that I did not act in good faith,” Kerrigan said, according to the Berthoud Surveyor. Kerrigan chose not to run for re-election this year, as did Rice, although she has filed a candidate’s affidavit for the 2017 election.

According to the Loveland Reporter Herald, the three minority vote members said the report showed the majority members never intended to approve any contract.

Bolstered by the arbitrator, the union filed a lawsuit in Larimer District Court and requested an injunction that would keep the terms of the 2014-15 contract in place, and which would allow the union to continue as the teachers’ representative in contract negotiations.

On September 2, Larimer District Court Judge Julie Field approved the injunction against the district. The board members voted two weeks later, on a 4-3 vote, to appeal her decision to the Colorado Court of Appeals.

That same evening, the board’s private attorney Brad Miller informed the board that he had sought and received a $150,000 grant from the Daniels Fund to cover the costs of outside attorneys hired to defend the board in court. Miller obtained the grant on his own, without seeking board authority. The grant was accepted, also on a 4-3 vote.

The Court of Appeals denied the board’s appeal on October 2. The rest of the lawsuit, on the breach of contract claim, is still pending.

In a statement, union President Andy Crisman said the group is disappointed that the board majority “will not collaborate with teachers to make our schools better for our students…Spending time and money in the courtroom instead of mediating is not a good use of the limited resources that we have.”

To date, attorneys’ costs for the district total about $125,000.

One note about the attorney Miller: He also represents JeffCo’s board.

The Reporter-Herald first announced that the JeffCo board had hired Miller’s firm, Miller and Sparks, based on Thompson District President Bob Kerrigan’s announcement at a December 11 meeting — one day before JeffCo’s board approved the hire on a 3-2 vote.

Dissenting board members complained Miller and Sparks was hired without a prior job posting, a request for proposals or any other form of public notice or discussion. JeffCo board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman (the two “no” votes) didn’t know the board was hiring a new attorney until two days before the vote.

The alleged lack of transparency behind JeffCo’s board hiring Miller, which was cited as a major reason JeffCo voters recalled the county’s conservative board majority, is the subject of the so-called “ethics complaint” filed last week by Witt against himself with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission — a commission that does not oversee school boards.

That Miller, a shared resource between the two controversial board majorities, was able to tap into at least $150,000 from the Daniels Fund, makes him not only a common thread between the two districts — but a well-funded one, too.  

This year, four conservative “reform” candidates are running for the Thompson District school board: Aimie Randall in District A, Tomi Grundvig in District D, Vance Hansen in District C and Bruce Finger in District G.

The first round of campaign finance reports for this election cycle, due Tuesday, didn’t show contributions from the big money donors who funded four conservative candidates in 2013, which resulted in three wins and a conservative majority on the seven-member board. Those donors, Ed McVaney, retired CEO of JD Edwards; and Ralph Nagel, who owns a chain of assisted living centers in Colorado, donated about $7,000 each to each of the four candidates. Those donations made up the vast majority of the contributions made to the candidates, ranging from a low of 60 percent for Carlson to a high of 94 percent for Rocci Bryan, who lost his race.

State rules for filing campaign finance reports differ for school board candidates. They don’t have to file nearly as many reports as other county races, and the ones due Tuesday were the first for this election cycle.

The next report, due October 30, is four days before the election.

Crisman told The Colorado Independent Tuesday that teachers, community members and parents are energized about the upcoming election.

“They see they can win,” Crisman said. He noted that the legal action has in some ways been a plus, in that it takes some of “the load off the teachers’ shoulders. They don’t have to worry about their rights or contracts for a while,” he said. “They can advocate for kids in the way they always have.”


Photo credit: Lucky Lynda, Creative Commons, Flickr

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