Dougco board backs off ballot measures

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County school board members on Wednesday opted not to pursue three potential ballot measures severing union ties, deciding instead to change board policy to accomplish similar goals and to officially declare an end to negotiations with its teachers union.

Dougco school board president John Carson discusses policy changes at Wednesday’s meeting.

The policy changes don’t go quite as far as all three ballot measures would have, if approved by voters, but they do declare it is an “unlawful breach of the fiduciary duty of this or any future Douglas County board of education” to collect union dues or use district dollars for union pay.

The changes do not address a third potential ballot measure, which would have prohibited collective bargaining between the board and the union. Board members did approve a resolution declaring current negotiations with the union have concluded.

“I think it’s a great decision for them not to move forward on this and save taxpayer dollars,” said Brenda Smith, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. “And I also feel they understood that it absolutely is not legal to move forward.”

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Ballot proposals

  • Should the district be prohibited from using public funding for the compensation of union leaders?
  • Should the district be prohibited from collecting union dues from employee paychecks on the union’s behalf?
  • Should the district be prohibited from engaging in collective bargaining with the union?

Tuesday, an attorney representing the union sent a letter to district leaders declaring board members had no authority to place the proposed ballot measures before voters and threatening a lawsuit if they did so.

Board President John Carson said the legal threat wasn’t a factor in the decision to go the policy route, noting, “Our legal research indicates the board can put anything it wants on the ballot.”

What was important, he said, was the estimated $200,000 price tag to cover election costs.

“We want to move on,” Carson added. “We don’t particularly want to drag it on a few more months and setting this in board policy brings closure to it so the district can get on with educating kids.”

Tensions between the union, which has represented teachers in Dougco for more than 40 years, and district leaders have deteriorated since a majority of conservatives were first elected to the board in 2009. On July 1, after the two sides were unable to negotiate terms, their collective bargaining agreement expired and Dougco is now the state’s largest district in which teachers are working without a union contract.

Dougco school board members already have ended the practice of using the district’s payroll system to collect union dues and they no longer allow any district dollars to be used to compensate union leaders who have left the classroom. What board members sought, first with the proposed ballot measures and then with the policy changes, was to require future boards to continue those prohibitions.

Carson, in remarks before the board voted on the policy changes, said the board wanted to consider the ballot measures to ensure it retained local control. He cited a request by the teachers union for state intervention in the recent failed negotiations.

An overflow crowd at Dougco’s board meeting Wednesday. At one point, police allowed people to enter the meeting room only after others exited.

“Going to the voters was a way of ensuring that, if the governor were to intervene, we would ask the voters to help guide the process,” he said, adding, “We have had productive and useful discussions with the Hickenlooper administration … and in the spirit of that partnership, and in order to avoid spending the nearly $200,000 … I believe we will decide tonight not to proceed with the three ballot measures.”

The policy changes do contain “some real teeth,” according to Carson, allowing any Dougco citizen who believes the board is not following the new policies to take legal action. If the citizen wins, the district will pay “reasonable” legal fees.

“If a future board wanted to change things, they would have to do that in a very public manner,” he said.

As for the board’s vote to declare negotiations with the union over, Smith, the union president, said that came as no surprise.

Audience members grabbed what floor space they could find and, as they waited, some students did homework while some teachers graded papers.

“They’ve been finished since June,” she said. “We haven’t been back at the table for two and a half months.”

Still, Smith said, “We will continue to fight for a collective bargaining agreement. It truly is about teachers’ voices, silencing teachers’ voices, and we’ll continue to push the board and be there for our teachers.”

The board votes on policy changes came after more than a hundred students, parents, teachers and others gathered to protest recent reform efforts and the treatment of the union.

They carried signs and walked in front of district headquarters, prompting honks from passing drivers. A smaller group of board supporters also waved signs.

Inside, close to 20 public speakers addressed the board, many urging them not to approve the proposed ballot measures. Several of them were teachers.

Scott McEowen, a 14-year teacher and a parent, told board members that he worried he would get to the podium and simply cry throughout the two minutes he was allotted.

“We’re just sad,” he said of teachers watching recent events unfold. “We’re profoundly sad.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede