By Ben Velderman
ASHBURN, Va. – During her years as a second-grade teacher, Jill Turgeon would attend her local union meetings, only to leave feeling a little dismayed at what had been discussed.
“I heard first-hand what the unions are trying to promote,” Turgeon tells EAGnews. “It had nothing to do with education. It was all about compensation and politics.”
At one union meeting, Turgeon remembers mentioning that her school’s new automatic lighting devices were expensive and rather useless. The union president quickly reminded her that installing those lights had benefited other school employee unions.
“Those are jobs,” the union president said.
Turgeon began to understand the school employee unions were more concerned about their own financial gain than they were about being good stewards of the taxpayers’ resources. It was an insight into the union mindset that Turgeon has not forgotten.
Even though she’s no longer a teacher, Turgeon is still very involved in public education – as the Vice Chairman of Virginia’s Loudoun County School Board, a position she’s held since January. It’s one of the largest school districts in the state, with an operating budget of more than half a billion dollars.
Turgeon is helping lead the new, fiscally conservative school board, which recently voted to cut $13.6 million from the school superintendent’s proposed 2012-13 budget. The vote indicated “a clear shift in the climate of Loudoun County School Board meetings this year,” wrote the local newspaper.
“(Taxpayers) don’t realize how much waste is out there,” Turgeon says, adding that most of the cuts involve things that aren’t “going to touch the classroom.”
Turgeon is part of a growing movement of concerned taxpayers and parents who are deciding that they must get involved in their local school board to keep their district’s budget and curriculum from being dominated by big-spending, left-leaning school employee unions.
She is among hundreds of Americans who have received candidate training from American Majority, a non-partisan organization that trains liberty-minded citizens in the nuts-and-bolts of running for public office. According to its website, the American Majority has trained over 1,900 candidates for local and state political office since its inception in 2008.
As Jill Turgeon’s story illustrates, American Majority’s work is beginning to yield fruit on school boards across the country.
‘What’s going on in your backyard’
Daniel Blackford is another of American Majority’s successful alumni. Blackford serves as secretary of the Goose Creek (Texas) Consolidated Independent School District’s Board of Trustees, which he joined after defeating a long-serving incumbent who also happened to be the president of the local teachers’ union.
Along with his wife, Blackford also leads the local tea party. He says the decision to run for the school board was the logical next step in advocating for a fiscally responsible government.
“I decided there’s got to be more to it than holding up a protest sign or writing to my local congressman,” Blackford tells EAGnews. “What affects you most is what’s going on in your backyard. And school taxes are what affect your pocketbook most of all.”
He notes that school districts are the third-largest employer in the state of Texas, which means a lot of people have a financial interest in larding up school budgets – including influential teacher union lobbyists.
Blackford attended an American Majority training session, in which he learned the process for getting on the local ballot and developing a strategy for winning a local election.
“They tell you to do your homework about what the issues are in your area,” Blackford says. “They teach you to know the district, know who votes. These are the people who have a genuine interest in the issues.”
Blackford calls the American Majority training “amazing” and says he has recommended it to two friends who are running for other positions in the county.
‘We have to start with education’
The desire to help control school spending and lower taxes aren’t the only reasons ordinary citizens attend an American Majority training session.
Concerns about the poor academic performance of Guthrie (Oklahoma) Public Schools convinced Travis Sallee to run for a seat on local board of education. Sallee joined the board in February, and is focused on improving academics and accountability.
Sallee’s school board run was also an outgrowth of his concerns about the general decline of the nation and the culture.
“If we’re going to change the direction of the country, we have to start with education,” Sallee says. “If we don’t do that, it’s a lost cause.”
He says the American Majority “definitely provides a valuable service” to those who wish to get involved in their local government.
“The biggest challenge is that conservatives lack resources in activism,” Sallee says. “Liberals are way ahead of us in organization.”
The American Majority is working to correct that organizational deficiency, and is helping traditionalists and conservatives get elected to local school boards, where many of the profligate and progressive policies originate.
But as Jill Turgeon notes, it’s only a beginning.
“It took a long time for schools to get in this condition,” she says. “I’m not so naïve to think we can turn it around in three or four months.”