Monday, May 14, 2012

DSEA prefers to have no competition in funding school board races

. . . or at least that's the general conclusion to be drawn from DSEA President Frederika Jenner's current post. "Full-bore school board elections."

Jenner makes several specific points, although she fails to connect the dots between them, and along the way she commits a number of misstatements that should be clarified before anyone takes this argument really seriously.

First, Jenner objects to the idea of moving school board elections to November:
I, for one, do not believe that this is a good idea.  I certainly do not want to have Dem. candidates for school board squaring off against Rep. candidates.  I do not believe that this would be good for them and not good for our schools.  I like the fact that, so far, partisan politics has had very little to do with these elections.  I think.
This ignores several facts of which we should take note.

Among them is the fact that with school board elections held in May, voter turn-out is so low that that they are inevitably decided by the votes of far less than 1% of the eligible voters.  This serves to magnify the influence of DSEA tremendously, although whether it is better for the 1% to decide continually for the 99% who should be on our school boards is perhaps something for the Occupy movement to take up.  [Not really, but could not avoid the reference.  It's Monday, after all.]

Another consideration is that having school board elections in May has given Delaware's political parties a free pass not to take any position on the important issues of the day in public education.  Neither the Delaware Democrats or Republicans have had to weigh in--as parties--on issues like education reform or  choice/charter.  This might be acceptable in larger states like Ohio or Pennsylvania, but it doesn't play well in Delaware, where State legislators should be held to account for their positions on public education.

[Of course, to do so would crimp DSEA lobbying activities a bit.  DSEA, like the NRA, seems to have a non-partisan, incumbent-friendly approach to campaign contributions, handing out money, flyers, manpower, and polling support to Dems and GOPers alike.  Moving elections to November would potentially force the union to make some uncomfortable decisions.]

Nor would moving the elections to November actually force candidates to accept a party designation.  School board races could still be listed as non-partisan, without party identifiers attached to the candidates, or candidates could choose to run as independents.

But none of that, of course, is why DSEA actually opposes moving the elections to November.  The real reason has to do with the fact that the union has established itself as the 500-pound gorilla in school board races in May, and has no intention of relinquishing that position.  To use a Red Clay example, eight of the last nine successful school board candidates in contested elections were DSEA-endorsed nominees.  The single exception was a candidate so well-liked by a significant number of the district's teachers that they simply ignored the union endorsement.  But, by and large, especially in New Castle County and Appo, a DSEA endorsement has heretofore generally meant that you were going to be elected (in part because DSEA PACs would inject thousands of dollars into your campaign and have your child's teachers standing outside the polling places on Election Day).  The lack of same endorsement meant the opposite.

So what that really means is that, as a school board candidate, your entire campaign pretty much comes down to one 90-minute interview with a handful of local teacher's union leaders, who decide for their entire membership who to support.

And this is supposed to be healthier than open competition in November?

To hit a couple of those factual inaccuracies in Ms. Jenner's post--

Our locals have strict endorsement policies.  Candidates’ platforms are assessed and compared.  They look at and discuss the issues.  See my earlier post, What’’s It All About, Alfie? to see what our locals most likely look for in a school board candidate.
Truth:  unfortunately, if those locals have strict endorsement policies, they do not appear to be published anywhere.  If one visits the DSEA website, what you find is that the page on "How We Pick Candidates" is gated, with the information only available to members.  This is a rather strange piece of "transparency" from the organization that so championed that concept in the recent elections.  The page on "Why We're Involved in Politics" has been removed.

Moreover, Ms. Jenner herself has publicly proclaimed that as President of the Red Clay Education Association, the organization did not examine the candidates who stepped forward, but went out and recruited them.  Mike Matthews assures me that this policy has changed in Red Clay, but there's no documentation of same.  So if you are going to tell us you are transparent, and you have strict policies, Ms. Jenner, then let's see it in action.

However, our monies come from donations from local district residents and school employees like teachers, paras, food service workers, secretaries, custodians, and bus drivers; from our DSEA member donations to our PAC funds; and from the candidates themselves, as well as their own friends and family members. 
Truth:  This is simply disingenuous.  The overwhelming bulk of the money donated to DSEA PAC funds is derived from DSEA and other union organizational contributions, not individual contributions--to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Where do those dollars come from?  They come from the dues money that the membership in those unions pay.  The members have little or not choice in "contributing" that money.  While, technically, DSEA membership is not legally mandatory for Delaware teachers, DSEA is an "agency shop."  What that means is that if you are a teacher and do not want to be a union member, you still have to pay the union a "representation fee."  Most new teachers arriving in the district have no idea that they can even opt out of the political part of DSEA's activities, and if they do, they are no longer allowed to vote to ratify or reject collective bargaining agreements.  Moreover, there is a tremendous amount of influence brought to bear on any individual who does not want to sign up.  I serious doubt that among Delaware's thousands of teachers there are more than a dozen individuals who have not signed up.

The individual unit members have virtually no control over how DSEA chooses to spend their money, any more than they have any control over which candidate their officers choose to endorse.  And once that money is passed from DSEA proper to one of several PACs, the entire control of those funds is vested into the hands of the PAC leadership, which--for DSEA--means Fredericka Jenner and Howard Weinberg.  The President and Executive Director of DSEA are effectively the final arbiters of how hundreds of thousands of dollars will be spent on political campaigns.

So the idea of the little people banding together with their pennies to unite behind worthy candidates is, at best, a fiction.  DSEA is quite hierarchical, not very transparent, and takes advantage of every nook and cranny of the law.  None of which is wrong--it is just galling to see it presented by Ms. Jenner as something other than what it is--rough and tumble politics.

But it’s our money, our own people power, and media we engage to inform our own members and like-minded voters in a single district—not BIG MONEY from a shadowy and secretive 501(c)(4); not polished professional pollsters and trained call center workers in the mid-west;
True?  Sort of.  DSEA doesn't employ professional pollsters from the mid-west--the firm DSEA uses is located in Washington DC.  It's called Beldon, Russonello & Stewart, and it proudly lists DSEA as one of its best customers.  In 2010, DSEA paid BR&S over $16,000 to conduct "polling." 

As for the BIG MONEY?  In the original True Grit, one of the bad guys told John Wayne, "That's bold talk from a one-eyed fat man!"  The same applies here.  DSEA has spent over $1 million to influence elections in Delaware over the past five years.  In 2008, the union spent over $700,000 through its PACs, and in 2010 over $250,000.

I personally like the way Nicole Dobo handled this question, when Jenner complained about the BIG MONEY to The News Journal:
"This type of campaigning is unacceptable in our state," said Frederika Jenner, president of DSEA, which spent more that $250,000 in 2010 on contributions, mailers and polling intended to influence that year's elections.
Our political work is transparent…we file reports in a timely, detailed manner with the state’s Department of Elections.  I guess that we could have gone the “shadowy” c-3/c-4 anonymous route but we think that it’s misleading and detrimental to our state’s civic discourse.  Heck–you know that our printed materials come from DSEA–it says so right on every piece. 
True?  Not exactly.  If you have a copy of the flyer that DSEA sent out in favor of Red Clay's Kenny Rivera in the most recent election, or if for some reason (like too much time on your hands and a tendency to be a packrat) you still have one of Jack Buckley's from 2011, you will discover that these were paid for by the Working Families for Delaware PAC, and nowhere mention their connection to DSEA.  Oh, if you recognize the names Fredericka Jenner and Howard Weinberg you might figure it out, or if you went back into the Department of Elections and tracked it down . . . .

. . . you'd discover that DSEA contributed money to the DSEA Advocacy Fund PAC which then contributed money to the Working Families PAC, and that the leadership in all three cases was Frederika Jenner and Howard Weinberg.  Illegal, no.  Transparent? To the full extent required by law, and not one millimeter further.  Misleading--you betcha.  What tiny percentage of voters have either the time or the skills to penetrate the cloak of interlocking DSEA PACs?

And when we do make independent expenditures (not in coordination with the candidate–I wanted to make that clear just in case Steven Colbert is reading this post), we file those in a timely, transparent manner with the state’s Department of Elections. 
This is at best a thin fiction.  Again, take the example of the recent Red Clay election.  Here's what Mike Matthews wrote about Kenny Rivera's campaign in a post on Kilroy's Delaware that Kilroy later decided to pull down:
The mailers that have gone out thus far have been paid for by the campaign. DSEA will be sending one issues piece to Red Clay members and one GOTV piece to members closer to election day. 
This raises the interesting question--if there was no coordination, how did the Rivera campaign know in advance the details of the two mailers that DSEA intended to send out?  The reality is that everybody in politics today skirts the law about non-coordination with PACs.  That's fine, but please don't try to peddle DSEA as virginal in this regard.

The other question one might have on reading Ms. Jenner's sentence above, is one of voice.

Which "we" is she speaking as, when she says "we file those [reports] in a timely, transparent manner with the sate's Department of Elections"?  Is she speaking a DSEA leadership, DSEA Advocacy PAC leadership, or Working Families PAC leadership?  The sentence is . . . difficult to parse.

In reality, this is a calculated response to the fact that school employees—the unidentified special interest groups mentioned in the quote below from the same Heffron article, have been successfully involved in school board elections for the past decade–and why wouldn’t we be?
Fair point.  Except . . .

DSEA is a union.  DSEA represents the interests of its members, and there is sometimes the very real potential for the interests of that membership to conflict with the interests of the district at large.  For example, school board members are required to approve (and in some cases help negotiate) collective bargaining agreements with DSEA locals.  It is quite legitimate for teachers and other unionized employees to come to the table and argue for all that they can get in terms of salaries, benefits, and working conditions.  But we elect school board members to be the voices of ALL stakeholders in the district, and if there is ever a question of HOW MUCH a district can afford to pay, as a citizen I would be happier of 6 of the 7 members of the Red Clay School Board had not been elected due primarily to DSEA political activity.

Yes, Education reformists have an agenda, and, yes, they bungled it masterfully in 2012.

But DSEA also has--MUST HAVE BY THE NATURE OF ITS RESPONSIBILITY TO ITS MEMBERSHIP--an agenda that is not always the same as the school district's agenda.  This is a dynamic relationship of enligtened self-interest on both sides--and it is again disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Ms. Jenner, in closing, has written a wonderful "feel-good" piece about the virtuous union fighting for truth and right in our schools.

Unfortunately, what the DSEA position adds up to is a strong intent to maintain its stranglehold on selecting, endorsing, and electing its preferred school board candidates at all costs.

And since it would lose that power in November elections, that cannot be allowed to happen.


Anonymous said...

The question I dont have an answer too yet is, do all teachers receive a proxy vote through their pay advice or other means of communication to vote on the pool of candidates that the DSEA board has approved to narrow it down to the majority candidate?

Steve Newton said...

Oh, sorry, forgot you asked that.

The answer is NO. The local board interviews and endorses; both the members in the local and the DSEA state hierarchy go with that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the answer.

But teachers HAVE to fund the candidates the union chooses regardless of their own views?

Steve Newton said...

DSEA funds the candidates with teacher dues funneled into PACs.

Other than by elections to their local and state boards, individual teachers have NO say in how the money is spent, or upon which candidates.

That is how union campaign financing works.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Steve. I understand all this I just like to point out how teachers cant opt out of the union nor can they have a say in how their dues are spent. Yet if they contribute to an outside private PAC they are castigated and are evil.

Will McVay said...

Luckily, we can all play this game...some of us just choose to do it more blatantly than others.

tom said...

Will, your link resolves to a page that says "This content is currently unavailable
The page you requested cannot be displayed right now. It may be temporarily unavailable, the link you clicked on may have expired, or you may not have permission to view this page.

mb said...

For the sake of truth I would like to clarify that DSEA dues money is not allowed to be used for PAC. Many members give additional money along with their dues...Delaware has the highest $ per member average PAC donation of any NEA state affiliate.

Not dues money...additional donations.

Please get your facts checked before you accuse others of lying. Thank you.

Steve Newton said...


Then perhaps you would care to explain where DSEA got the hundreds of thousands of dollars it transferred to its PACs over the last five years.

Surely you are not suggesting that your membership contributed over half a million dollars to DSEA to send to its own PACs.

Because to have done so would be not only amazing, but probably illegal.

mb said...

If you want the details I encourage you to contact DSEA directly. All of the data is available by request.

Why presume when it is unnecessary to do so.

Steve Newton said...

You are so sure of yourself, provide them rather than assert them and ask me to do your work for you.

DSEA donated hundreds of thousands of dollars as an organization to the DSEA Advocacy PAC over the course of five years. That's not in dispute. DSEA reported it to the Commissioner of Elections.

You are now making the assertion that DSEA had a source for hundreds of thousands of dollars for political purposes that were not derived from a portion of the membership dues.

Since you are the one making the assertion, show us the evidence. I have pointed out what DSEA did with 100s of thousands of dollars--you claim it was all from individual donations.

Prove it or take your show elsewhere.