Budget documents from 20 Colorado school districts show taxpayers spent more than $5.8 million over the past five years for the activities of teachers unions, expenses that were mostly covered by their collective bargaining agreements.
The costs ranged from $1.3 million in the Douglas County School District since 2007 to zero in the Mesa County Valley District.
Some districts pay all or part of the salaries of full-time union leaders, salaries of teachers on leave to attend union-sponsored training and meetings and hiring substitutes for teachers who were attending union events.
Critics of the practice say taxpayer money is being used to benefit unions, not children.
“It’s a shame the money isn’t getting into the classrooms and to students,” said Walker Stapleton, the Republican state treasurer. “It’s another example of the stranglehold that unions have on education funding in Colorado.”
Union leaders say the time teachers take away from the classroom for meetings and training helps students.
“This impacts student achievement. People don’t understand the value of our role in helping the district function,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.
About a quarter of the state’s 178 school districts have collective-bargaining contracts, and the specifics for spending for union officials’ and teachers’ time vary. The Post said the $5.8 million estimate is conservative because some districts don’t track the number of hours and costs incurred.
In 16 districts, taxpayers pay all or part of the union president’s salary and benefits while the president is on leave from the school to conduct union business, the newspaper said.
Nine districts pay the salary and benefits for teachers on release time as well as for the substitutes taking their place in the classroom. Ten aren’t tracking the annual cost of union leave.
In Douglas County, 80 percent of the $1.3 million spent since 2007 was part of a teachers union professional-development program never included in the contract, the newspaper reported.
Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who started in June 2010, said she cut the district’s payments to union members nearly in half last spring and will end the extra spending altogether in January.
“Going forward, my responsibility is to do what’s right for our students in these economic circumstances and to be accountable for taxpayer dollars,” Celania-Fagen said. She declined to comment on past practices.
The Jefferson County School District teachers union is allowed 275 days of leave a year. In the past three years, the union used an average of 230 days per year.
The district doesn’t track actual costs, but based on an average substitute daily rate and an average daily teacher rate, The Post estimated the cost at $350,054.
Superintendent Cindy Stevenson said most of the district’s teachers would rather be in the classroom, and when they need to take union leave, they do so “wisely and thoughtfully.”
“If we lived in a perfect world, we’d never do it,” she said about union leave policies. “But if you want teachers at the table, and collaboration and participation, you have to do some release” during school hours.