By Ben Velderman
COEUR d’ALENE, Idaho – As a professional engineer and inventor, Brent Regan has made a career out of identifying problems and finding solutions.
But during his recent six-month stint as a school board trustee for the Coeur d’Alene School District, Regan came across a problem he couldn’t solve – namely, how to deal with a teachers union that’s more interested in demonizing its political opponents than protecting the district’s financial future.
Regan was appointed to Coeur d’Alene’s Board of Trustees last December to serve out the term of a trustee who had resigned.
At his very first board meeting, Regan was confronted with the magnitude of the district’s financial woes: A $3.2 million deficit caused, in part, by the fact that nearly 90 percent of the district’s budget is consumed by employee salaries and benefits.
Regan and his fellow trustees determined that was an unsustainable spending practice, which, if left unchecked, would eventually lead to program cuts for students, layoffs and salary freezes for teachers and higher taxes for residents.
The trustees tried to use contract talks with the Coeur d’Alene Education Association – the local teachers union – to correct the problem, but the union had other ideas.
Instead of coming to the bargaining table eager to solve the budget problems, the CEA and its political allies used the board’s fiscally conservative policy proposals as fodder for the school board elections which took place in May, according to Regan.
“They came to the table wanting to, I guess, demonize us,” Regan says, according to the Coeur d’Alene Press.
It proved to be an effective strategy.
Regan and two other conservative trustees were defeated during the May school board elections. After the trio’s defeat, the board decided to delay further contract talks until their replacements took office. That occurred at the beginning of this month.
The district’s budget problems, however, couldn’t be delayed.
State law required the Coeur d’Alene board to approve a balanced budget by July 1. Without necessary concessions from the teachers union, the board had no choice but to fill its $3 million budget hole through student-centered cuts.
Regan tells EAGnews the adopted budget eliminated some academic programs for gifted and talented students, delayed the necessary purchase of six buses, and left some teacher vacancies unfilled, which will lead to larger class sizes.
“The result clearly, clearly does not help children or teachers,” he says. “That astounded me.”
Regan refused to vote for the budget during his final board meeting as trustee, on the basis that it “hurts kids.”
It still passed 4 to 1.
Regan walked away from his board experience with the realization that the teachers union likes “operating in an adversarial relationship, that there’s got to be a bad guy in the room, and the board makes a convenient bad guy.”
Health insurance costs cause big problems
Like many school districts throughout the United States, Coeur d’Alene’s financial problems are linked to exploding health insurance costs. Officials in the northern Idaho district expect health care costs to increase by 13 percent – or $800,000 – this year alone, reports CDAPress.com.
This past spring, the trustees offered CEA members a deal: If teachers agreed to a plan with higher deductibles, the district would provide them with a health savings account to offset those new expenses.
The idea would have saved the district about $2 million, while still giving Coeur d’Alene teachers good health insurance. It also would have put some extra money “in the pocket” of most educators, Regan says.
CEA members were not only uninterested in the plan, they were downright hostile to it, Regan said.
“You’d have thought we were asking to cut off an arm,” Regan recalls with a laugh.
He says the union focused on the plan’s “worst-case scenario,” in which some hard-luck teachers might actually lose money under the plan.
Regan drew on his engineering background and offered to work with CEA leaders to fix the problem. However, he quickly discovered they wanted to use the issue as a political weapon against Regan and his fellow conservative trustees in the school board elections in May.
The temptation to demagogue the issue was just too great for the union to resist, Regan says.
The CEA made that abundantly clear during one contract negotiating session between the district and the union. During the session, which was open to the public, one of the teacher union’s negotiators ignored the district officials and spoke directly to the audience.
“She literally turned her back to the school board during her remarks,” Regan remembers.
In the end, the CEA got what it wanted. The three union-preferred candidates each won their races by decisive margins, sending Regan and the other board members who were worried about the budget packing.
Kristi Milan, president of the Coeur d’Alene Education Association, called it “a victory for the children of Coeur d’Alene,” according to CDAPress.com.
CDAPress.com reports the new board is expected to amend the newly adopted budget once the district settles on a contract with the teachers union. It’s unclear which steps the union-compliant board will take to address the district’s budget problems.
Fixing education is still a priority for Regan
The whole experience was eye-opening for Regan. He got to see first-hand that, despite their claims, some adults involved with public education don’t have the best interests of students at heart.
Though Regan hasn’t ruled out another run, he feels especially unsuited to deal with the mindlessly contentious teachers union.
“My mistake was in coming to the job with a ‘let’s fix the problem approach.’ I didn’t expect the power plays or the demonization. That was kind of a shock.”
Regan still believes in the cause of trying to improve and reform America’s public education system.
“As my 19-year-old son said, ‘We’ve got to get a hold of the education system. If we don’t, it will lead to big problems for our country.’”