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Future of Education in Colorado Being Decided in Local School Districts

A war is raging for the very soul of education in Colorado. Local education reform’s fiery collision with powerful entrenched interests has turned Jefferson County and Thompson school districts into battlefields on which the future of Colorado’s public schools will be decided. The stakes have never been higher.

In Jefferson County, the three members of the school board’s reform majority face a massive recall effort driven by status quo activists unhappy with the democratic results of the 2013 election. This subversion of local democracy has relied heavily upon the use of inaccurate language and personal attacks.

In truth, the Jeffco board majority members’ accomplishments far outweigh their few missteps. These accomplishments include equalizing funding for public charter school students, expanding free full-day kindergarten for low-income students, empowering principals with more autonomy through student-based budgeting, and building a new school facility without incurring debt. The board also has overseen extremely successful negotiations with the Jefferson County Education Association, producing what could well be the most sensible collective bargaining agreement in recent memory.

Further north, Thompson School District also is facing a hard battle against powerful political interests after the school board’s four-member reform-minded majority shot down two bad deals with the district’s local teachers union. After extending negotiations past the contractual deadline in hopes of reaching an agreement that never materialized, Thompson prepared to move forward without a union contract for the 2015-16 school year.

Faced with the possibility of losing its privileged position in the district, the Thompson Education Association enlisted legal help from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers union. With the school year looming, the district agreed to participate in non-binding arbitration with a “neutral” arbitrator, who in this case was a retired judge with a strongly pro-labor background.

Unsurprisingly, the arbitrator’s final report sided with the union. Designed as a political sledgehammer first and a legal document second, the brief was riddled with internal contradictions, inconsistencies and inaccuracies. The highly questionable arbitration process cost the district roughly $80,000 in direct and indirect legal expenses according to district officials. More importantly, it created a clear springboard from which TEA could launch a full-scale legal war.

At the core of the Thompson dispute is an argument over whether locally elected school boards are required to ratify tentative union agreements under contractual “good faith” provisions. Such a decision could have far-reaching consequences, potentially stripping school boards across the state of their ability to negotiate better contracts — or to end their contracts altogether as Colorado law allows.

Interestingly, it has been the teachers union blocking a deal with the school board in neighboring Greeley-Evans School District 6 by demanding a larger raise than the board believes it can offer. This illuminating juxtaposition seems lost on the Thompson Education Association, but the underlying implication in both Thompson and Greeley are consistent: It’s the union’s way or the highway.

Thankfully, the Thompson board majority chose to stand for a locally elected school board’s right to make judgment calls in the best interest of its district, voting down the arbitration report and opting to begin the school year without a union contract. Board member Bryce Carlson stated in the motion to vote down the arbitration report that he rejects “any attempt to coerce, force, or otherwise compel an elected school board to agree to terms with which it disagrees.”

As promised, the education association immediately filed suit, asking the court to “issue an injunction maintaining the status quo” for the duration of the legal proceedings. A district court judge granted the request, issuing a potentially precedent-setting injunction forcing the school board to abide by a version of the same contract they voted three times not to ratify.

The message in both Thompson and Jeffco is clear: Reform efforts will not be tolerated. Board members who dare to defy the status quo will have their names and reputations tarnished through abusive recall proceedings. In other instances, the union will do everything in its power to prevent school boards from being able to alter or eliminate their collective bargaining agreements.

The most important battles in Colorado education this year are being fought not in the marbled halls of Washington or on the floors of the Colorado Capitol. They are being fought in our backyards. And as those battles rage, Colorado faces a stark choice: Cling to the status quo, or press forward with reforms designed to lift student achievement, respect parental choice, and treat teachers more fairly. I know where I stand. Do you?

Ross Izard (ross@i2i.org) is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank. This article originally appeared in the Greeley Tribune on September 10, 2015.