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Union president's address creates debate

Teachers' rep talks to Highlands Ranch Republican breakfast group


An invitation to the teachers' union president to address a local Republican Party-based monthly breakfast sparked dissension among some of the group's regular attendees. Some members refused to attend Courtney Smith's July 25 address to the Highlands Club.

Highlands Club chairman Rick Murray said he is undaunted by the concerns.

"This meeting has generated a little bit of controversy, even to the point where our party leaders are going around telling people to stay away, keep their minds closed and fall in lockstep with them," he said before introducing Smith. "I would prefer they stay away. But if they think they can stifle dissent and control our thoughts and actions, who we listen to and have speak to us, I've got one word to say to them: Hell will freeze over first."

Douglas County Republican Chairman Craig Steiner, who was not at the meeting, said he was aware some were concerned Murray was promoting the union.

“But for my part, I don't care who Rick promotes at his breakfast,” Steiner said. “He has a First Amendment right to invite whomever he wants to speak.”

Before Smith's presentation at the meeting at Mon Ami restaurant Murray read aloud Facebook posts about the issue and identified the prominent Douglas County Republicans who'd written them by name. One county GOP district captain wrote that the decision to invite Smith suggests the club doesn't support the party platform.

"I would challenge (them) to come in here and show me in the Republican Party platform where it says I don't listen to somebody else, or listen to an opinion I don't agree with," Murray said.

The Highlands Club, originally called the Highlands Ranch Republicans Breakfast Group, operates independent of the Douglas County Republicans, but its attendees are largely conservative.

Union president cites 'misperceptions'

Smith talked about the Douglas County Federation's role within the school district, her history with the group and addressed what she called common misconceptions.

“I don't have horns,” said Smith, who started with the Douglas County School District as a high school teacher before becoming a union officer. “I didn't grow up (wanting) to be a union president.”

The union's longstanding collective bargaining agreement with the school district expired in 2012 after failed, extensive negotiations. Since then, the two entities have been involved in legal disputes. Most recently, the Colorado Department of Education found in favor of DCSD after the teachers' union requested a review of its teacher evaluation system. The union alleged the system was “invalid and unreliable.”

Smith also referred to a letter she received July 24 from school board president Kevin Larsen and vice president Doug Benevento that included suggested talking points for the Highlands Club breakfast.

She discussed the five items in the letter, which included political contributions to Douglas County school board races, how teachers' union dues are spent, teacher pay, and the now-suspended agreement between the two entities in which DCSD paid a portion of union leaders' salaries.

“I think the misperceptions out there are hampering true work in the school district,” Smith said. “I think the school district has put forward some pieces that might have been well received by the teachers in the school district if they were part of the development of it.”

Smith pointed to recently released state statistics that show 17.3 percent of teachers left DCSD in 2013-14. The statistics do not include employees who left after Dec. 1, 2013.

The 17.3 percent closely mirrors turnover statewide, but is higher than that of surrounding, similar suburban districts, and higher than in DCSD's past.

“The problem I see that's huge to me is the amount of teachers leaving Douglas County for the surrounding districts because of what's happening here,” Smith said, citing the market-based pay system among the reasons for the resignations.

Attendees weigh in

Larsen, who attended the breakfast, noted the salary bands are not set, but expand and contract based on the market. He also said the district is retaining its best teachers.

“More important than the overall turnover is to look at where it's happening,” he said.
Larsen emphasized that the state recently reaffirmed the validity of the district's teacher-evaluation system.

“It's not easy changing the evaluation system,” Larsen said. “It's hard work.”
Breakfast attendee Pat Perlinger, an Acres Green resident, said he's concerned about the differing accounts given regarding teacher attrition.

“You can't have teachers leaving in droves and at the same time not have teachers leaving in droves,” he said.

“We need to have the truth coming out to people so they can look at it in a common-sense way.”

A few audience members took issue with some of Smith's statements, particularly the use of union funds in political campaigns. Smith said union funds used in campaigns come not from the DCF or dues, but a specific political fund managed by the DCF's parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

Audience members brought up ads run during past Douglas County School Board campaigns. State Rep. Frank McNulty said it is “disingenuous” to say the union doesn't participate in local campaigns. He pointed out that Smith is executive vice president of AFT Colorado, and said union funds were used to “beat the heck out of our Republican candidates.”

McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, thanked Smith for attending.

“We may disagree on many things, but what we won't disagree on is having a conversation like this,” he said.


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