union politics

Younger, vocal group of Denver teachers pushing union to be more aggressive, activist

Tommie Shimrock. (Courtesy photo)

A group of Denver teachers, many of them young and social justice-minded, has formed a caucus within the city’s teachers union with the goal of pushing the union to be more progressive — and more aggressive.

One of them — 31-year-old middle school special education teacher Tommie Shimrock — has announced his intention to run for the organization’s top job. Shimrock said he told president Henry Roman in September about his plans. Formal nominations are due later this month and election results will be announced March 24.

“It’s natural for teachers unions to become a little stale and to become the bread-and-butter union,” Shimrock said. “Labor is new and progressive and needs to adjust. ”

Roman, who has been president for the past eight years, said he can’t yet say whether he’ll run for another term. He said he’s focused on negotiating a new master contract and a new agreement for Denver Public Schools’ incentive-based pay system, known as ProComp.

Of the new caucus, he said the union “is a democratic organization and this group formed to do some work. As a democratic organization, they are definitely entitled to their opinions and that’s all good. We believe we’re doing everything we can to continue to strengthen the organization.”

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has approximately 2,940 members, Roman said — which is about half of the teachers in DPS, the state’s largest school district, and more than belonged last year. By comparison, about 60 percent of eligible staff belong to the teachers union in Jefferson County, the state’s second-largest district, according to a union spokesman.

While union caucuses are not necessarily rare, the Jefferson County and Douglas County teachers unions don’t have them, union representatives said. The Aurora teachers union has two — one for special education and one for technology — that union president Amy Nichols said in an e-mail “provide trainings and support for members in those areas.”

At a December kickoff event for the Denver caucus held at a local brewery, several teachers said they were drawn to the caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — because of concerns the union has been losing power for a decade.

During that time, district leaders, along with a school board dominated by non-union-backed members, have carried out a host of reforms such as closing low-performing district-run schools, replicating charter schools and expanding the number of innovation schools, which don’t have to abide by the union contract.

“People are losing interest,” said Shaun Seaholm, a high school social studies teacher who’s been on the job for 16 years and would like to see the union be more confrontational. “There’s more complaining than getting things done.”

It’s time for a change in leadership, said Jen Holtzmann, a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher. “We need to find something that will unify the membership,” she said. “Social justice is something we can all get behind.”

At the brewery, books including The Death and Life of the Great American School System, A is for Activist and How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers were displayed on a countertop alongside sign-up sheets and buttons featuring an apple core, the caucus logo.

Indeed, organizers point to caucuses in cities such as Chicago as an example of what’s possible. In Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators successfully ran candidates for union leadership positions — and those leaders went on to lead a strike in 2012. They claimed the strike was partly over unfair labor practices that also impacted students.

Similarly, several Denver caucus organizers were involved in a union-supported campaign last year to improve conditions for both DPS teachers and students. Called The Schools Denver Students Deserve, it made several demands. Among them: less testing, smaller class sizes and a full-time nurse, full-time social worker and restorative justice program in every school.

That campaign has fizzled, the teachers said. Shimrock described it as “on the back burner.”

The teachers have now turned their attention to building the caucus. One of their first actions was to oppose proposed changes to the union’s bylaws that would have limited who could run for president, vice president, secretary and treasurer to teachers who’d served at least one two-year term on the union’s board of directors and who had non-probationary status, or tenure.

In a December vote, union members rejected the proposal. If they hadn’t, Shimrock, who does have non-probationary status and was elected to the board of directors but hasn’t yet served a full term, would have been excluded from running for president.

Marguerite Finnegan, a third-year high school math teacher who was involved in the campaign and is now a member of the caucus, said the proposed changes are an example of how the union under the current leadership is “siloed and set in its ways.”

“We don’t have a strong union, and that’s the only way we can save public education,” she said.

While she said union leaders have done a good job building goodwill with the district, it seems they’ve been hesitant to press for anything in return: “There’s a perception that the union doesn’t do anything.”

Asked about the union’s direction and stance on social justice issues, current president Roman said, “At this time, we’re bargaining the master agreement and the ProComp agreement and both of them are priorities for us. We’ll see what parts of the overall agenda overlap and where we can extend ourselves a little more. Certainly, we have worked in the past few years with different community organizations, like Together Colorado and Padres Unidos, who work closely with the parents of the community. We’ll continue to do that.”

But Shimrock said the caucus would like to see the union more aggressively push for changes both inside and outside the immediate sphere of public education.

For example, Shimrock mentioned urging DPS to accelerate efforts to recruit more teachers of color in a district where about three-quarters of students are racial minorities and three-quarters of teachers are white. He also mentioned advocating on citywide issues such as affordable housing — the lack of which affects both teachers and students’ families.

“Teachers can be on the forefront of saying, ‘Gentrification is negative. It displaces people. We’re not going to let this happen if it doesn’t happen in a way that benefits kids,’” he said.

The caucus teachers hope that message will inspire more of their colleagues to get involved.

“It’s important for us to give teachers a reason to think that labor is important,” Shimrock said. “…It’s not just to say, ‘Give me a call if your principal is being mean to you.’ That’s still important. Employees need protections. But it’s so much more than that, too.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.

out of the running

Denver school board candidate Jo Ann Fujioka withdrawing from at-large race

PHOTO: Daniel Brenner/Special to the Denver Post
Jo Ann Fujioka, center, holds signs and participates in a song during a Rally for Health Care earlier this month.

One of three candidates vying to unseat Denver school board vice president Barbara O’Brien has announced that she is dropping out of the race.

Jo Ann Fujioka said in an email message to supporters this week that she’s ending her candidacy because two other candidates backed out of running with her as a three-person slate. No other candidates have dropped out of the race.

Fujioka, a former Jeffco Public Schools nurse and administrator who lives in Denver, said consultants hired by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association “pressured the other two candidates to withdraw from the slate and then informed me, ‘You bring nothing to the table.’”

Fujioka declined to name the other two candidates or the consultants. Asked about Fujioka’s withdrawal, union president Henry Roman said, “We have strong candidates in every district.”

Four seats on the seven-member Denver Public Schools board are up for election in November. All seven seats are currently held by board members who support the superintendent’s vision, which includes embracing school choice and replacing low-performing schools.

Three incumbents are running for re-election. In the fourth race, the incumbent has endorsed a candidate. Every race is now contested, and every race includes at least one candidate who disagrees with the superintendent’s vision.

Fujioka was running for the at-large seat held by O’Brien on a platform of opposing school closures and new charter schools. Fujioka said her strategy from the beginning was to form a slate of four like-minded candidates. (Until recently, only three races were contested, which is why she said the proposed slate had three members.)

The idea, she said, was that the slate would stand together against the district’s reforms, which she and others have sought to tie to the policies championed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

DeVos is best known for supporting private school vouchers, which DPS opposes.

“There’s a national anti-voucher, anti-DeVos, anti-Trump feeling,” Fujioka said. “…The fact that there are lots of activists against it, coupled with a ticket of four people saying, ‘This is what we’re railing against,’ that’s the advantage I see.”

Running individual campaigns against the incumbents would be more difficult, she said. When it became clear the slate wasn’t going to happen, Fujioka said she decided to withdraw from the race altogether — and explain her reasoning in a message to supporters, which she also posted on her website.

“It isn’t just that I quit,” she said. “That’s why I put that out there.”

O’Brien, who previously served as Colorado’s lieutenant governor for four years, responded to Fujioka’s statement with a press release saying she was disheartened to learn the reason that one of her opponents was dropping out of the race.

“Too often, women in politics find themselves facing unreasonable institutional barriers,” O’Brien said. “It’s discouraging, misguided and just plain wrong. … That a fellow progressive voice was forced to exit the race because consultants told her, ‘You bring nothing to the table,’ is more of the same that women in public service, and everywhere, have to tolerate.”

Fujioka called O’Brien’s statement “the sleaziest piece of campaign propaganda” she’d seen.

“I am appalled at Barbara hopping on this like a vulture to make it sound like she is so empathetic to my situation as a woman, when it really had nothing to do with being a woman,” Fujioka said. “Such a blatant appeal to women is shoddy at best.”

O’Brien said her statement was heartfelt.

Two other candidates confirmed that they’re still in the running against O’Brien: northwest Denver father Robert Speth, who narrowly lost an election to a school board incumbent in 2015, and former DPS teacher Julie Banuelos.

In the race for the board seat representing northeast Denver, two candidates — Tay Anderson and Jennifer Bacon — are challenging incumbent Rachele Espiritu.

In central east Denver, candidate Carrie A. Olson is challenging incumbent Mike Johnson.

And in southwest Denver, candidate Xochitl “Sochi” Gaytan is challenging candidate Angela Cobian, who has been endorsed by the board member who currently holds that seat.