If a teacher’s union gives moral support to “sickout” protests, and elected union representatives send out organizing emails, can the union honestly claim they’re not involved? If all these elements are present, does the union still possess plausible deniability?
Those are the questions raised after CompleteColorado.com has obtained emails from a school’s elected union rep of the Jefferson County Education Association (JCEA) urging teachers to participate in sickouts to protest the new school board leadership elected last November.
“Sick Out planned for Friday Aug 19 ~~ The board just announced they are going to vote on the pay scales at next week’s meeting– the 18th,” the Sept. 10 email from Lynee Zajac Beck, who is also a science teacher at Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, begins. “It’s up to us to spread the word– we must stop work on Friday the 19th – and let the community know why.”
“JCEA supports a sick out but they can’t officially organize one. It’s up to us!” the email concluded. The author of the email, Lynée Zajac Beck, later sent out a message with a subject line clarifying Sept. 19 as the date of action. On that Friday, the district closed both Standley Lake and Conifer high schools due to large numbers of teachers calling in sick.
Media reports attributed the cause of sick-outs to concerns over new history curriculum and to a new performance pay plan that gives raises to 99 percent of Jeffco teachers.
The emails went out to, at a minimum, Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy, which offers full-time and part-time online learning options to K-12 students under the auspices of Jeffco Public Schools. The Academy’s licensed staff are covered by the collective bargaining agreement and eligible for JCEA membership. These teachers typically work at home, using phones and computers to deliver lessons to, and communicate with, students.
In July, Colorado Education Association (CEA) president Kerrie Dallman told delegates at the National Education Association (NEA) annual meeting in Denver that several Colorado union locals are “in significant crisis, working against hostile school boards.” She listed Jefferson County as one of three examples. Dallman announced that 48 NEA staff operatives would be coming to Jeffco to visit teachers at home during the summer.
Mike Antonucci, an independent journalist and national expert on teachers unions, reported that CEA received a one-year grant from NEA to ramp up organizing efforts in three Denver metro area school districts. “The organizing plan will incorporate ‘escalating activity’ in ‘high intensity campaigns’ to include ‘rallies, marches and other direct actions,’” he noted.
In response to union leaders’ continuing denials that sickouts were “not organized” by JCEA, Antonucci observed their statements might be “literally true.” But, he said, it “doesn’t rule out a host of other possibilities,” including that sickouts could have been “organized” by the state union or national union political operatives, or that it was “organized by teachers at the two high schools, but JCEA approved it.”
The communications uncovered from Jeffco’s 21st Century Virtual Academy are not isolated. Another mid-September email message from a self-proclaimed JCEA activist teacher at Golden High School writing “on behalf of our entire school” offered instructions for participating in a teacher walkout. Since Golden had scheduled its homecoming on September 19, the email author said “it would [sic] too unjust to our students to sick-out on [that day] when most schools will be participating.”
While the email stated a plan to “sick-out” on the “following Monday,” September 22, Golden High School was not closed down by concerted teacher action until one week later. Also shut down by the September 29 edition of the “blue flu” was Jefferson High School in Edgewater.
Test data collected by the Colorado Department of Education shows that more than 90 percent of Jefferson High School 10th graders are not proficient in math, while two-thirds similarly are unable to read at grade level. Juniors at the school average a 15 on the ACT. For that score, the website CollegeSimply.com identifies no Colorado colleges that would give a student a real chance to enroll.