Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, viewed her visit to Colorado on Wednesday as a kind of tale of two cities, with lots of Dickensian overtones.

AFT president Randi Weingarten and members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees, who helped design an incentive plan with the help of a union grant.

On the one hand, there was her lunchtime visit to Denver’s Cole Arts & Science Academy, where she met with members of the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees. The Denver union received an AFT Innovation Fund grant last year to create a model employee incentive pay program called “The Good Food! Incentive Project” to reinforce the district’s nutrition and wellness efforts to combat obesity among schoolchildren.

The pay-for-performance system was jointly designed by labor and management, and rewards school lunchroom workers for making meals so enticing and nutritious that more youngsters will eat them. The program is being piloted in DPS this year and, if successful, may be replicated by other districts nationwide.

It was all lovey-dovey and harmonious as Weingarten joined representatives from both labor and management around a Cole lunchroom table as they dined on the same menu items students were having – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fruit, salad, a whole-grain roll and low-fat milk. This was after Weingarten, a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned-union activist, took a turn serving students on the lunch line.

‘Political and malevolent’ school board draws her wrath

But then the subject of Douglas County came up, and Weingarten turned into the street fighter she’s noted for being. She had harsh words for Douglas County district leadership.

Strong words

  • Weingarten’s visit prompted a letter from state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, a staunch supporter of Dougco’s school board: “On the issue of school reform, Ms. Weingarten and her union are decidedly on the wrong side of history.” Read the full letter.

“This is what’s infuriating to me,” said Weingarten. “Here we have Denver, which took the germ of an idea and it has blossomed into this amazing thing with workers and management re-envisioning the school kitchen.

“And across the border is Douglas County, where the school board is only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.”

Since the 2009 elections brought a conservative majority to the school board, relations between the board and the Douglas County Federation of Teachers – which has represented the district’s teachers for more than 40 years – have dramatically deteriorated.

Dougco’s 3,300 teachers are now working without a union contract after public negotiations stalled and the 2011-12 contract expired July 1. That makes Douglas County the largest district in the state in which teachers are working without a collective bargaining agreement.

There have been disputes over issues such as whether the district would continue to pay half the costs of the union’s staff salaries and about deducting union dues from teachers paychecks. Both practices have now stopped.

Last month, board members backed off a plan to put three measures on the November ballot that would have severed all district-union ties, if approved. But they did make changes in policy that have similar effects.

“They took something that was collaborative for 20 years and destroyed it,” said DCFT president Brenda Smith, who accompanied Weingarten on her visit. “They have an absolute political agenda.”

Dougco official says Weingarten visit shows union agenda

Douglas County school board President John Carson said Weingarten’s visit and her comments about the district “demonstrate what we’ve been arguing for the last year.”

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”
- John Carson, Dougco board

“The Douglas County Federation of Teachers really has its strings pulled by the national union in Washington, D.C., and that’s demonstrated by the fact that that’s where they send the majority of their union dues, to the national union for politics,” Carson said. “The Douglas County Federation of Teachers is really more interested in national politics and is not interested in the educational interests of kids in Douglas County.”

Weingarten was to meet with Gov. John Hickenlooper after leaving Cole, then spend the late afternoon at an AFL-CIO union phone bank, meeting with workers and local activists and making calls to discuss with voters what’s at stake for them in the November election.

Dougco union leaders have asked the state to intervene in the district-union issues, and both Dougco district and union officials have previously met with Hickenlooper to discuss the matter.

“We feel that the important thing here is that the voters of Douglas County and the elected representatives of Douglas County make the ultimate decisions concerning the school district and the education of Douglas County kids,” Carson said.

That said, “we’re interested in working with Gov. Hickenlooper on education reform and we feel we agree on many things,” Carson added. “We particularly agree on the need to increase the performance of our schools and to reward great teachers, so we look forward to working with him on areas where we agree.”

Weingarten promised, “The AFT is in this for the long haul.

“This is not my first trip to Colorado, and it won’t be my last,” she said. “I’m here to say to Douglas County, ‘What the heck are you doing? And why are you doing this?’ They are attempting to destroy the public education system. It is absolute political machination.”

But she had nothing but praise for the Denver pay-for-performance experiment.

“To see this kind of engagement is incredible,” she said. “When I taught full-time, my administrative duty was being in the lunchroom. The difference between my lunchroom and this, well, it’s amazing. This really shows tremendous respect.”

Lunchroom workers say they’re more engaged

Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Denver’s Morey Middle School, served on the team that designed the incentive program.

Weingarten, a former classroom teacher, took a turn serving students on the lunch line at Cole Arts & Science Academy in Denver.

“We thought it would be easy when we started, but oh my goodness … ” she said. She said the team met every week for an entire year to craft the program, which provides financial bonuses to lunchroom workers based on individual performance, school performance and district performance in meeting certain targets.

“The amount of the bonus all depends on us,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary, who was also on the design team. “We’re working now as a team more. We understand our responsibilities more in-depth. In the past, someone might have said, ‘Oh, that’s a manager’s job.’ But now everyone is pitching in. And we’re working more in marketing to get the kids involved.”

Denver has been a leader among Colorado school districts in the move to scratch cooking, salad bars and school gardens. The district has also embraced breakfast-in-the-classroom, which it plans to eventually roll out to all Denver schools. Some of the schools participate in a federally-funded program to deliver a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable to every student, every day in their classroom.

“It’s a lot of work, but often, we’re the first person a child sees in the morning,” said Torres. “And sometimes, what they say makes me cry. I’ve heard them say ‘This is the first food I’ve had since Friday,’ or ‘I just had popcorn for dinner.’”

Young said the number of breakfasts she serves every morning at Morey has jumped from 160 to 200 when breakfast was served in the cafeteria to 600 now that it is served in the classroom.

DPS lunch workers: No pushback to healthier foods now

Recent national media reports have depicted students pushing back against the healthier school food requirements mandated by Congress this fall.

But Denver lunchroom workers say the pushback against the new school nutrition guidelines isn’t much of an issue in DPS.

“We got a jump on that. We started this a long time ago,” said Sandi Torres, food service worker at Schmitt Elementary. “We’re training our students early now. A salad bar is great because they get to decide what to take, and they eat what they take. They begin to realize at a young age what foods have more nutrition.

“I think it’s becoming more stylish for students to eat a salad now. Our salad bars are so colorful, with all those different mixtures of lettuce, and our wonderful selection of fresh fruits.”

Added Tracy Young, lunchroom manager at Morey Middle School: “And those seventh- and eighth-grade girls who are thinking of becoming anorexic, they can still eat a nutritious salad. And the boys who are always starving can go back again and again to the salad bar. And they do.”