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Thompson, Jeffco, and the Battle for the Soul of Colorado Education

I’m not exactly a fortune teller, but every now and then I surprise myself with my prescience. Last May, I wrote a post just before Thompson’s second vote on an only slightly revised version of the first junky tentative agreement brought back from the negotiating table. The post was called “Thompson Gears up for the Final (?) Battle.” It turns out that question mark meant more than I knew back then.

The teachers union is many things, but timid is not among them. Still, I was legitimately surprised to see the tenacity with which they have opposed the Thompson reform majority’s attempts to make very reasonable changes to the district’s union contract—particularly because their bigger, meaner, more powerful cousin in Jeffco seems perfectly capable of making compromises. Well, other than that whole strike threat thing. While JCEA was busy actually negotiating, TEA was dragging the district into expensive non-binding arbitration proceedings and arguing that they don’t have a right to reject a tentative agreement with which they disagree under the current contract’s “good faith” provision.

Poppycock, you say. Colorado school boards have constitutional authority to exercise local control over their districts, and no statute requires a school board to even recognize a union in the first place. In fact, 140 of Colorado’s 178 school districts have no recognized union at all (you can find a full list of unionized districts here). You’re right, and the arbitrator agrees with you. Sort of. CEA, on the other hand, thinks you’re dead wrong.

The full arbitration report was released late last week. Unfortunately, it is absolutely stuffed with inaccuracies, contradictions, and broken logic so egregious that I can’t help but wonder if the arbitrator should have his head examined. Or at least I would wonder that if I didn’t already know that he was selected by the union for his strong pro-labor record on the Colorado Court of Appeals. The district agreed to use this guy, but only because the school year was looming and they couldn’t afford to spend huge amounts of time on the somewhat arduous arbitrator-selection process outline in the current MOU.

In essence, the report argues that the board negotiated in bad faith because it “never” raised issues for negotiation. Confusingly, the report cites the many issues raised numerous times just pages earlier. The arbitrator then proceeds to make apparently arbitrary judgment calls about what constitute “legitimate” issues for negotiation, and informs board majority members that TEA adequately addressed enough of their concerns to vote affirmatively on the contract. Why? Because he says so. Who cares how the actual elected officials feel?

Then, in a logical train wreck of epic proportions, the arbitrator indicates that because Colorado law does not require school boards to recognize teachers associations as bargaining units, the board should have simply refused to negotiate in the first place. So, going through the entire negotiations process—even extending past negotiations past the contractual deadline to give the teams a chance to build a better agreement—and then ultimately voting no on a bad contract constitutes bad faith. However, walking into the negotiating room, slapping the other guy in the face, and simply refusing to negotiate at all would apparently have been good faith.

I can’t even.

So what in the world is going on in Thompson? The same thing that’s going on in Jeffco, my friends: Waterloo. The only thing that remains to be seen is whose Waterloo it will be. Jeffco and Thompson are both part of the battle for the future of Colorado education. The implications will be felt for years, decades even.

Jeffco recall petitions were certified yesterday, making those elections official. Now, the Thompson school board faces the threat of a full-scale—and extremely costly—legal battle if they do not accept the arbitrator’s report or TEA’s preferred tentative agreement at the board meeting this evening. (You can watch a live stream of the meeting tonight here. It starts at 5:30). At the core of that legal battle will be the same argument TEA and CEA made during arbitration: That an elected school board does not have the power to tell them no.

The message is clear: Reform efforts will not be tolerated. Candidates who dare to defy entrenched interests will have their names and reputations tarnished through abusive recall proceedings. If that isn’t an option, the union will simply force school boards across the state to comply should they have the audacity to question their collective bargaining agreements.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me really, really mad. Even really, really, really mad. I believe we still live in a state where the will of the voters matters, where political opponents cannot make a mockery of the democratic system just to get their way. I believe we live in state where local school boards constitutionally, statutorily, and philosophically have a right to make judgment calls based on their districts’ best interests.

I will vigorously oppose any effort to force duly elected school boards to bend to the will of the teachers union or the anti-reform crowd. I sincerely hope the Thompson school board will do the same tonight. Ed will be watching.