By Ben Velderman
LOVELAND, Colo. – An official with Colorado’s Thompson School District recently warned residents that the district has a “bullying” problem which could “sabotage” student learning if left unchecked.
When school board member Denise Montagu issued her dire warning during a recent board meeting, she wasn’t referring to bullies found in the district’s classrooms or on its playgrounds.
Instead, Montagu was referring to Liberty Watch (Colorado), a citizens’ group that petitioned Thompson school officials to open up the district’s budget process and contract talks with the local teachers’ union to public inspection.
Liberty Watch leaders are also requesting that taxpayers no longer be forced to subsidize the Thompson Education Association by paying the teacher union president’s salary – who spends her days attending to union business instead of a classroom of students – and having district employees deduct union dues from teachers’ paychecks.
Those are reasonable requests for taxpayers to make in any of the nation’s school districts, but they are especially appropriate in the Thompson School District, which has a $3.3 million deficit and a number of underperforming schools.
The Liberty Watch petition contained the signatures of nearly 300 residents, but that didn’t seem to impress most board members.
Montagu was the most outspoken of the board critics. She accused the group of attempting to “disenfranchise our largest employee group” and to “sabotage the education that’s being provided to students in our community.”
“What we have here is a minority – albeit a very vocal one – demanding that we conform to their agenda,” Montagu said in a video recording of the Feb. 20 board meeting. “Some might even describe their behavior as bullying … ”
Board President Sharon Olson – who is a former president of the Thompson Education Association – praised the union as a “strong work partner” with the district and said the Liberty Watch petition would jeopardize that relationship.
“I’m really hoping that we are done talking about these issues because these are very close to my heart,” Olson said. “(It’s) very painful when I see somebody that is really a partner with us be kind of attacked.”
With the exception of Bob Kerrigan, the Thompson board members agreed with Olson and Montagu and rejected the Liberty Watch petition, 6-1.
Money not going to classrooms
Nancy Rumfelt, the executive director of Liberty Watch, tells EAGnews the group has been monitoring the spending and transparency practices of the Thompson School District for the past two years.
Rumfelt explains that Liberty Watch’s scrutiny of the 15,000-student school district stems from its belief that taxpayers can most effectively cause change at the local level.
“The Democrats and progressives have understood (the importance of local involvement) for a long time,” Rumfelt says.
She adds that her school board critics aren’t “used to conservatives paying attention to local issues.”
Rumfelt, who has an accounting background, says her motivation isn’t to bust up the local teachers union, as her critics have charged. She only wants to ensure that tax dollars are being used on things that actually benefit students.
The district’s subsidies to the Thompson Education Association don’t meet that standard.
For example, Thompson taxpayers currently pay the vast majority of TEA President Laurie Shearer’s salary and benefits, even though she doesn’t teach a single class. While the union contributes $20,000 toward Shearer’s compensation, taxpayers pay the remaining $72,000 and all the costs of hiring a substitute teacher to cover for Shearer.
Rumfelt says “it’s not unreasonable” to ask the union to pay its own bills, considering that the TEA collects about $520,000 a year in union dues and passes 90 percent of that on to its parent unions, the Colorado Education Association and the National Education Association.
Like watchdog groups throughout the nation, Liberty Watch is also concerned about the exploding costs associated with their teachers’ retirement fund.
Colorado’s pension fund for teachers and other state employees is underfunded by $23 billion. Bob Kerrigan, the only outspoken fiscal conservative on the Thompson school board, says teacher retirement costs are on pace to eat up 20 percent of the district’s total salary costs by 2015.
“That’s money that doesn’t go to the classroom,” Kerrigan tells EAGnews.
Kerrigan says the district budget creeps up by $1.2 million every year, due to teacher benefit costs and contributions to the state retirement fund.
Taxpayers have been on autopilot
Rumfelt says those daunting financial realities make it crucial that taxpayers have a clear understanding of how district leaders are spending their money, both in the budget and in the teachers’ contract.
But instead of opening up those processes for public inspection, Rumfelt says the district is making the budget process harder for the community to participate in – and to understand.
Her concerns seem well-founded. The Reporter-Herald reports that district leaders recently scrapped “a budget proposal team of parents, community members and teachers” who, in years past, have been asked to make suggestions about school budget issues.
The newspaper notes that Thompson school officials also pulled the plug on an online survey, which asked residents their thoughts on how to balance the budget, as well as a series of community forums that would have allowed taxpayers to ask questions and share concerns about the budget.
Chief Financial Officer Steve Towne defended the new policies.
“With all due respect to the community, while we want to be aware of what their heartbeat is, the people in administration are here because they have background and experience in these issues,” Towne told the Reporter-Herald.
Kerrigan says the moves are meant to prevent taxpayers from getting too involved in budget matters.
“The school board doesn’t believe the public adds much value to the process,” Kerrigan says.
Despite the new restrictions, Rumfelt and other Liberty Watch members will be monitoring the process as closely as possible.
After the board rejected Liberty Watch’s petition asking for contract talks to be made public, district officials determined that portions of the negotiation process are open to taxpayers. Residents are allowed to witness talks when the full committee meets, a policy that was forgotten about because nobody’s made use of it for nearly 20 years.
However, taxpayers aren’t allowed to monitor subcommittee talks, which is where the details of the contract are discussed in-depth.
As for the budget process, Thompson taxpayers will be allowed to watch as the school board assembles next year’s budget. But their comments and concerns about the final versions of the district’s budget and teachers’ contract will be limited to three minutes during the public comment portion of the school board’s last business meeting in June.
That gives taxpayers little opportunity to have their questions answered or their opinions heard.
“The school district is meeting the bare minimum statute requirements of transparency,” Rumfelt says. “They’re following the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law.
“Transparency is not just about putting things up on the website. It’s about making things readily available and easily understood,” she adds.
Perhaps that’s not too surprising from a school board that’s headed by a former teacher union president.
Even so, Rumfelt says taxpayers have no one to blame but themselves.
“There’s been a real awakening in the country – the tea party movement, the liberty movement, whatever you want to call it,” she says. “People started waking up to the fact that it’s not just politicians – it’s us. We feel asleep. We stopped paying attention. We let it go on autopilot.”
Kerrigan agrees that the only way to inject more transparency and accountability (both in terms of finances and student achievement) into public education is for taxpayers to get involved in the process.
“There are all kinds of opportunities,” he says. “Jump in and help us.”