The Loveland-based Thompson School District and its teachers union, the Thompson Education Association, declared a truce after eight months of fighting over who will represent the district’s 1,000 teachers.
The school board approved a long-delayed contract Dec. 1 for its teachers for the current school year, because the teachers union promised to drop a lawsuit if the contract was signed. Thursday, the district’s attorneys ended an appellate court battle between the district and the union. The union, in turn, plans to drop its lawsuit when the case goes back to Larimer County District Court.
Two years of fighting started in 2013 when three new “reformers” joined board member Bob Kerrigan to form a conservative board majority that drew fire from the teachers union and the community.
Board meetings became so heated that some of the conservative members were escorted to their cars by police, as a precaution and at the request of district administrators. According to The Loveland Reporter-Herald, district officials said there were never any threats against board members and called the police presence a normal cost of doing business.
The fight peaked last spring, when the conservative majority shot down a contract with the teachers for the 2015-16 school year. That vote, and two more after that with the same result, led an independent arbitrator to say the board was acting in bad faith.
But the vote was never really about what was in the contract. The conservative majority wanted to squash the union.
Conservative board member Bryce Carlson wrote to The Loveland Reporter-Herald this summer that the union should not be the teacher’s sole negotiator. Removing the union, he said, would allow contract negotiations to be “more inclusive” of all teachers.
Former board member Donna Rice told a teacher that she hated the union and wanted to get rid of it, according to the arbitrator’s report.
About 70 percent of Thompson Valley teachers belong to the union, well above the required “50 percent plus one” district rule that has guided contract negotiations for the past 37 years.
Without a deal, the Thompson Education Association sued the district for breach-of-contract, alleging the conservative majority never had any intention of approving a contract with the union.
In September, a Larimer County judge ordered the board not to take any official actions to decertify the union until the lawsuit was resolved. The board and district appealed the injunction to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which weighed the issue for two months. Eventually, the court postponed deciding until after the Nov. 3 election.
And that made all the difference. Two minority members of the board were re-elected and joined by three new members, all of whom were backed by the teachers union. Conservatives lost the board majority. Now, five are pro-union; two are anti-union.
The five members were sworn in Nov. 19, and their first meeting was held on Tuesday, Dec. 1.
In the meantime, the union promised to drop the lawsuit if the board signed the contract.
At the board’s December 1 meeting, big changes began. With a unanimous vote, the district let go of Michael Francisco and Dan Dominico, two attorneys hired by Brad Miller, a lawyer with deep ties to anti-union school boards across the Front Range. Miller, who had also been hired by the board and had on his own solicited $150,000 from the Daniels Fund to pay for the lawsuit, resigned less than a week after the election.
“We’re back down to one law firm that knows the district well and has provided excellent service upon request,” board member Pam Howard told The Colorado Independent.
Now that the appeal has been withdrawn from the appellate court, the case will return to Larimer County District Court where the union plans to drop the lawsuit and the case would be over.
The new board’s next job was to approve the contract.
“It’s clearly past time and exciting to bring back the teamwork we’ve been known for in this district,” said Howard. Approving the contract “will improve morale, increase respect and of course will help our students.”
Board member Carl Langner, who had originally voted against the contract, voted for it Tuesday with reluctance.
It was too complicated, he said, though he liked that it gave teachers the right to transfer schools.
At the conservative board majority’s final meeting on Nov. 18, Langner warned that the new board would undo the work of the old one, overturning equalized pay for charter school teachers and teacher performance pay, two hobgoblins of the union.
One new member praised the contract for being fiscally responsible. Dave Levy called teachers the district’s cornerstone, although the contract extension doesn’t include a pay raise, only an undefined performance pay system. Board member Denise Montagu, who had been in the minority for the past two years, called a “yes” vote “a gesture of good faith and good will” toward the teachers union.
But Carlson, one of the two conservative members, said his opinion hadn’t changed, and he was the sole “no” vote.
The contract extension was immediately signed by board President Lori Hvizda Ward and union president Andy Crisman, to a standing ovation from the audience.
The board then unanimously voted to ask its attorneys to drop the appeal of the lawsuit.
Negotiations with the union for the 2016-17 contract will begin in January. The board will begin discussing what it wants in that contract next week.
Photo credit: Andy Crisman, TEA president