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Bullying tactics

Board member threatens guerrilla warfare against school district

School board members Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes
  • School board members Eric Christen and Sandy Shakes

A member of the Colorado Springs District 11 school board who was accused of divulging information from a closed board session and who threatened "guerilla warfare" against the district won't be disciplined.

Board Treasurer Eric Christen was criticized at a May 12 school board meeting for authoring a vitriolic e-mail message in which he denounced the imminent approval of an annual contract with the district's teachers union.

The message appeared to make reference to discussions of the contract that had taken place during a closed-door session. Board members are prohibited from publicly divulging what is said during such sessions.

Christen later pointed out, however, that he hadn't been present during the session in question.

Board President Sandy Shakes said last week that no disciplinary action was pending against Christen, even though she believed he had stepped out of bounds.

"My problem was twofold," Shakes said. "I felt he took information he had gotten from an executive session [and] I thought it was very harsh language when he said there was going to be guerilla warfare."

Christen did not respond to telephone messages left at his home and office, requesting comment for this story.

Breaking ranks

The disagreement over the teachers' contract divided the slate of four self-proclaimed "reformers" on the D-11 board, who swept into office last November and seized control over the seven-member board.

Shakes, Christen and board members Craig Cox and Willie Breazell, all of whom favor school vouchers and have been critical of teachers unions, ran a coordinated campaign and won office with the help of record-breaking campaign contributions from wealthy voucher proponents.

But although the four have been seen as allies, Shakes -- a longtime former D-11 teacher -- broke ranks last month, joining board members Karen Teja, David Linebaugh and Mary Wierman in approving the union contract on a 4-3 vote.

Christen, who claims residence in Colorado Springs but works as an anti-union lobbyist in Sacramento, Calif., opposed the contract in part because D-11 teachers have only a limited time window each year to opt out of paying union dues.

Shakes' intent to vote for the contract prompted him to write his e-mail, in which he declared that "this board now has a majority of anti-reformers running it."

That majority won't be in charge for long, Christen pledged -- signaling that the battle for control over District 11 may only just have begun.

"Three new seats [on the board] will open up next November, a date that cannot and will not come soon enough for far too many children who expected and needed so much more," Christen wrote. "Until then, this district can expect a guerilla warfare campaign unlike anything they have ever seen by those who are exceedingly proficient at it."

While the e-mail doesn't specify who will wage the campaign, political operatives associated with Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck, a prominent voucher proponent and union critic, have recently formed a political action committee designed to elect "reform-minded" school board candidates in future elections. Schuck also helped orchestrate last year's elections of Shakes, Cox, Breazell and Christen.

Christen also blasted D-11 Superintendent Norm Ridder in his message, saying the school board is "keeping staff (including the superintendent) around who have sat idly by while our district's test scores have gone into the toilet."

Temper tantrums

As for Christen's threat of "warfare," district officials say it didn't cause any security concerns.

D-11 students who threaten violence against fellow students or staff can face discipline, including suspension, according to district spokeswoman Elaine Naleski. But Christen's threat wasn't interpreted literally as threatening violence, she said.

Christen does, however, have a history of throwing temper tantrums. In 1996, while living in Oregon, he was convicted of criminal mischief for damaging another person's car during a road-rage incident. [See "Excitable Boy," Feb. 19, available at]

Last December, Christen made a public apology for verbally attacking district residents during a board meeting.

"Sometimes I can get fairly impassioned," Christen said at the time.

Not an obstacle

Shakes, meanwhile, denied Christen's accusation that she has abandoned her zeal for "reform."

She said she remains committed to changes such as decentralizing control and resources from the district administration to individual schools, but she characterized Christen's crusade against the union as a "political agenda" and a distraction from efforts to raise student performance.

"I don't see the union as an obstacle for student achievement," Shakes said, adding she believes in working with the teachers union to make improvements. "I think that if you do things cooperatively and collaboratively, you are going to get much further along than if we do this 'in your face' stuff."

The union contract included salary increases of about 1 percent. The union also made concessions, Shakes said, by agreeing to discuss changes in teaching hours when the contract comes up for renewal next year.

-- Terje Langeland

Portions of Christen's e-mail, released by District 11, can be read by clicking here

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