EVERETT, Wash. – Rod Reynolds probably hasn’t read the classic self-help book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
If he has, he certainly isn’t letting the advice book interfere with his budding political career – and his local school district stands to be better off because of it.
Reynolds is running for a school board seat in Washington State’s Everett school district, where his two children are enrolled.
After Reynolds announced his candidacy earlier this year, leaders of the Everett Education Association – the local teachers union – offered to meet with him, so they could learn more about his positions on issues facing the school district and the union.
Such “meetings” work like this: If EEA leaders like what they hear from a candidate, they might endorse him or her and put the union’s considerable political muscle into helping get that person elected in November.
Most candidates jump at such opportunities, especially beginners who need some help getting their campaigns off the ground.
But Reynolds isn’t like most office seekers.
Not only did Reynolds turn down the EEA leaders’ offer, but the self-described watchdog and whistleblower responded to the invitation with a lengthy letter explaining why teacher unions shouldn’t get involved in school board races at all.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think your union should issue an endorsement of any school board candidate, and I don’t think any board candidate should accept one,” Reynolds writes in the June 19 letter to the union.
“The school district and its employees’ unions are natural adversaries. …You represent the teachers of the district; school directors represent (theoretically) the taxpayers-citizens who elect them. I don’t see how a school board candidate’s acceptance of a union endorsement could be anything but a conflict of interest.”
Reynolds continues: “As for your questionnaire, most of the questions … have little to do with the actual role of a school director, let alone the board’s functional relationship with the teachers’ union, so I’m not interested in filling it out.”
Such straight talk won’t win Reynolds a single pro-union vote, but it might just win the hearts of Everett parents and taxpayers who want a board member who isn’t afraid to say ‘no’ to the teachers union.
‘The culture of secrecy’
This isn’t Reynolds’ first attempt to join the Everett school board; he ran in 2011, only to finish last in the crowded primary field.
Nor is it his first brush with the local teachers union.
During Reynolds’ first campaign, he participated in the EEA’s vetting process. But as he walked away from the interview, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the union had already settled on its chosen candidate, and that the vetting process was just window dressing, meant to make EEA leaders appear evenhanded.
“It was a great waste of time,” Reynolds tells EAGnews.
This time around, Reynolds is only one of two candidates running for the board.
According to Reynolds, his opponent is a well-connected civic leader, the kind of person special interest groups love to cozy up to. He concluded there was “no way” the union was going to back his candidacy, so he decided to “speak candidly.”
Did he ever.
In his four-page letter to the EEA, Reynolds explains how the labor group helps create – and benefits from – the “culture of secrecy” in which school district business is conducted.
And it all begins with how the district reaches collective bargaining agreements with its labor unions, including the EEA.
The “general public is not allowed to know much” about the district’s collective bargaining process with the EEA, Reynolds notes, even though the union contract directly affects the tax rates Everett residents pay and the conditions under which their children learn.
“I do know that there is a series of closed (negotiating) sessions, which are regarded as the holiest of holies in terms of secrecy of their content,” Reynolds writes.
“We on the outside don’t know if you’re really conducting hard-nosed negotiations night and day, or if you’re drinking beers and playing cards while the clock ticks down. … We don’t get to know,” he adds.
When the two sides reach a deal, Reynolds says it usually comes at the last minute, “at which point the general public is so relieved that school will be starting at all that we just suck it up and swallow the fact that a major change to district families’ schedules has been imposed on us without any input from us whatsoever.”
Reynolds tells the EEA leaders he’d be more supportive of collective bargaining if it were open to public view, as required in neighboring Oregon.
“As a taxpayer, I prefer to know how my government representatives arrive at their decisions on how to spend the monies I’ve had to pay.”
Reynolds also blames school board members and the district superintendent for perpetuating the Everett district’s hush-hush culture.
When taxpayers attend school board meetings to get their questions answered about district operations, Reynolds says Everett officials too often explain their decisions by saying it was done on the advice of the district’s attorneys.
“This is a way to avoid tough questions and accountability,” Reynolds tells EAGnews.
He also believes the board misuses exemptions to Washington’s open meeting law.
According to Reynolds, the board can meet privately with the superintendent by calling for a “performance review,” which is exempt from open meeting requirements. Since virtually any issue can be linked to employee performance in one way or another, he says district leaders often use the exemption “to duck out of the public eye.”
‘Walking in lock step’
If taxpayers elect Reynolds to the Everett school board on Nov. 5, they’ll be getting someone who doesn’t believe in “walking in lock step” with other officials, just for the sake of unanimity.
“Dissent shouldn’t be considered a weakness,” he says. “The Supreme Court doesn’t act unanimously, so why should a school board? It’s part of the democratic process.”
That dissent cuts both ways.
While Reynolds isn’t afraid to criticize labor unions, he’s not ready to link arms with “right to work” advocates, either.
In his letter to the EEA, Reynolds says he’s “glad Washington has so far not chosen to go” the route of Wisconsin and Michigan in limiting collective bargaining privileges for labor unions, but he hopes “our unions … will think about that when they keep turning up the heat on their demands.”
Reynolds has definitely carved out a unique position in the upcoming board election. That much is obvious from his chosen campaign slogan: “Trust but verify.”
It remains to be seen if Reynolds’ “open government” message resonates with enough Everett voters, but he’s hoping it will.
“The district needs all the scrutiny it can get,” he says.