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.”

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.