Douglas County Colorado lies immediately south of Denver, but is worlds apart politically. While Denver is a Democratic stronghold in this battleground state, Douglas County is registered 49% Republican, 22% Democrat, and 29% independent. What happens in places like Douglas County may not be easily replicated in California, unless you believe, as we do, that public sector union reform is a bipartisan issue.
The story of Douglas County is fascinating because it shows just how much political power a school board really has over their unions if they choose to wield it. The fight began back in 2009 when the Douglas County GOP was drawn into a election fight for supposedly nonpartisan positions at the local utility board. Apparently the Democratic party was systematically taking over local utility boards in order to enforce their agenda of promoting renewable energy and banning coal and nuclear power. Forewarned, and having a commanding advantage in registration, the Douglas County GOP fielded a slate of candidates and defeated the Democratic challengers.
The Douglas County GOP then looked at the voting records of the seven supervisors on the Douglas County School Board and decided to run candidates to contest the four open seats in the election of November 2009. They won all four and gained a majority on the board. In November 2011 the GOP ran candidates for three more open seats and won again, securing seven-to-zero unanimous control of the Douglas County School Board.
These victories started the battle with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). As the new board examined the district’s budget, they realized that four full-time union operatives were being paid out of district funds. They cut the funding, requiring the union to pay these employees using dues revenue. The board also noticed that the school district’s union was collecting $1.3 million in dues per year, and was sending $850,000 of that back to the AFT headquarters in Washington. The board decided to stop using the district’s payroll department to withhold union dues, forcing the union to collect it themselves.
The final break came in June 2012, when the three year contract with the teachers union expired. The board decided to not renew the contract. They made contract offers with every teacher individually and included merit pay. They added liability insurance coverage to the teacher’s contracts, replacing one of the only essential services they had previously gotten through their union. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had the authority, but chose not to force the district to negotiate a new contract with their union.
In July 2012, the Douglas County School Board implemented school vouchers, something that immediately yielded financial dividends, because the vouchers only pay 75% of what the district collects in government funding per pupil – leaving the remaining 25% as a surplus for the district. The ACLU then filed an injunction to stop the school voucher program, but was overruled in a local court. The ACLU has now appealed the case to the Colorado Supreme Court.
As Mark Baisley said, who presided as chairman of the Douglas County GOP during their takeover of the Douglas County School District board of supervisors, “the national professionals are coming down here to put us in our place.”
What happened in Douglas County Colorado can’t be replicated everywhere in the country. In California, the teachers unions control nearly every school district. Reformers in California will have to form bipartisan coalitions to regain control of public education. But the GOP leadership in Douglas County recognized a problem that should concern anyone, regardless of party – public sector union control of government entities starts at the local level.
Public sector unions concentrate on these smaller elected positions that control, in aggregate, where most tax revenues are spent. It encompasses public utility commissions, police and fire commissions, port authorities, airport commissions, special districts, school districts, redevelopment districts, cities, and counties. In California, six times as much government funds are spent at the local level than by the state government, often by elected officials who are virtually unknown to voters – those many names on the ballot that the typical voter skips over with no recognition whatsoever, as they search for their preferred big candidates running for high office.
Voters need to understand that the vast majority of government workers are employed by local agencies and districts that are managed by elected officials nobody’s heard of, except for the unions who selected them, financially backed them, and now negotiate with them. That these unions almost always financially support partisan political parties is secondary to the fact they are acting in the public sector, which means there is a clear conflict of interests between their agenda – more pay, more benefits, more staff, more job security – and the interests of the public at large.
How the reformers of Douglas County fare this November, now that they have invited a public sector union backlash that is national in scope, bears watching.
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UnionWatch is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org