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Thompson Majority Fights On for Local Control

Most of you probably remember that there’s sort of a thing going on in Thompson School District. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an understatement. In actuality, Thompson now stands alongside Jefferson County as ground zero for one of the most important education battles in Colorado.

More specifically, Thompson has been engaged in an ugly fight with the Thompson Education Association, backed heavily by legal support from the Colorado Education Association, over the reform-minded board majority’s decision not to accept two junky tentative collective bargaining agreements. At the center of that fight is an incredibly important question: Can locally elected school boards be forced to accept union contracts with which they disagree?

The issue has drawn significant attention from around the state, including an editorial from the Denver Post supporting local school boards’ ability to make judgment calls under Colorado law. It has also resulted in a flabbergastingly awful non-binding arbitration report and, more recently, an unprecedented injunction ruling that forces the district to abide by the 2014-15 collective bargaining agreement—an agreement that the board has rejected in one form or another three separate times.

The board majority isn’t giving up, though. Last night, a 4-3 vote gave the district’s legal team the authority to appeal the injunction or pursue other remedies, whatever “other remedies” means in lawyerese. In practice, a favorable ruling on appeal would free the district of the collective bargaining agreement foisted on it by the Larimer County District Court and allow the board to get back to building policies to take care of its teachers in the absence of a union contract.

Board members Bob Kerrigan, Donna Rice, and Bryce Carlson each gave statements supporting local control and local democracy, and reiterated the importance of the legal battle in Thompson for every school district in Colorado. Kerrigan’s statement mirrored previous statements from board majority members:

I support local democracy and an elected school board’s constitutional and statutory right to make judgment calls in the best interests of its district. I wholeheartedly reject the idea that an elected body can be forced—legally or otherwise—to accept terms with which it disagrees. I will continue standing by those principles as we move forward in this process using the generous donation we received this evening from the Daniels Fund.

That last bit proved to be the biggest deal of the night. The board announced after a long executive session that the district received a $150,000 grant from the Colorado-based Daniels Fund to help cover legal costs associated with the appeal. That means money won’t be coming out of Thompson’s classrooms to defend the district from the union assault on the board majority. It doesn’t mean, however, that the board minority members were ready to play nice.

For weeks, the three minority members have vehemently argued against continuing the legal defense effort out of concern for taxpayer funds and the district’s financial situation. But when they were handed a check that solves that problem, they proceeded to rail against the fact that outside money was flowing into the district to help them. They even went so far as to violate executive session confidentiality rules to call out a couple of my Independence Institute friends specifically. In other words, they are so concerned about taxpayer money being spent on their legal defense that they really must insist that they spend only local taxpayer money on that defense. No, I don’t get it either.

In other news, a TEA representative gave a combative public comment bemoaning reform and the introduction of politics to education, apparently having forgotten that she herself works for an arm of a massive political organization that spends money on politics like it’s going out of style. She then proceeded to inform the board that TEA is protesting the politicization of education by—wait for it—having its members campaign against reform candidates in Thompson instead of attending board meetings.

Sure, that’s a little contradictory. But it goes a long way toward explaining why the meeting room, which we have been repeatedly told is packed with non-union citizens concerned about the board, was mostly empty. And why the ugliness was limited to just a few agitators instead of a whole crowd of them.

I wish Thompson the best of luck in its appeal. Maybe a higher court will restore a little of my shaken confidence in judges by placing Colorado law ahead of political interests.