By Ben DeGrow | Special to Colorado Watchdog
Several weeks ago, I asked whether other school districts would pick on Douglas County’s cutting-edge reformers for taking away the local teachers union’s recognized monopoly status.
The 60,000-student school district could be standing at the leading edge of a trend, now that the collective-bargaining agreement has lapsed, and the school board has stopped collecting dues for the union and its political operations.
But perhaps it’s not just other school districts reformers should be concerned about. The only entity left that could pick on the Douglas County School Board is a state agency under Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper‘s authority. After negotiations broke down in June, the Douglas County Federation of Teachers made use of an obscure statute and filed a request for the Colorado Department of Labor to intervene.
Will the state get involved? On the one hand, Labor Department Executive Director Ellen Golombek, a Hickenlooper appointee, spent 10 years as the president of the Colorado AFL-CIO. And DCFT is the state’s largest branch of the American Federation of Teachers, a major partner union in the AFL-CIO coalition. Her inclinations and affinities must lie with getting the state involved to reinstate the DCFT’s power.
But on the other hand, Golombek’s agency really has no compelling reason to get involved. A weekend story in the Denver Post noted that “the state has been asked to intervene in school-district labor disputes 10 times in the past 20 years.” In both instances — Denver in October 1994 and Pueblo in November 1998 — a near or actual strike was taking place during the school year, directly threatening student learning time. (One also could observe that Denver and Pueblo are Democratic political strongholds, while Douglas County is not.)
Today, we sit weeks away from the start of school, and nearly all Douglas County teachers returned their letters of intent and have received an individual contract with a 1 percent raise and 1 percent bonus. In short, Douglas County stands on pretty firm ground in arguing that the current circumstances don’t disturb the public interest. Besides, if Hickenlooper authorized Labor Department intervention, it would be a very risky political venture.
While the clock ticks, we only can guess that Colorado will end up with one fewer unionized school district and a weakened AFT labor organization. And maybe it will inspire some timely action from other reform-minded school boards.