Last week, Erin Benham was appointed to the State Board of Education, creating an unprecedented potential for conflicts of interest. Benham, you see, is an officer with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the president of an AFT affiliate, the Meriden Federation of Teachers.
She’s also a longtime middle school teacher, which is great, and a perspective the state board could certainly use. But Benham’s deep connection to one of the state’s two teachers’ unions puts her perspective into question.
For example, will Benham recuse herself from any and all discussions and votes regarding teacher tenure and collective bargaining?
She’s not only a teacher but an officer with a union representing 29,000 Connecticut teachers, an organization that regularly negotiates with cities and towns across the state.
Just this month, the board’s Finance, Audit and Budget Committee met. Had Benham been involved in that meeting, can she assure us no confidential information would pass to her union colleagues?
When contract talks break down and the state board discusses arbitration proceedings, will Benham step out of the room?
Benham, as a union leader and a State Board of Education member, will have influence on both sides of every debate involving teachers and school funding of every kind. The AFT endorses and, in some cases, funds local, state and national candidates. Lobbyists who work for the AFT routinely attempt to guide legislation.
As a member of the State Board of Education, through which every decision on education funding flows, Benham will have undue knowledge of the process that leads to those decisions.
Keep in mind, AFT-Connecticut employs at least two full-time, in-house lobbyists, people who are paid to sway political action and who likely report to Benham in her role as an officer with AFT.
Then we come to the political donations. The last time Connecticut voters elected a governor, teachers’ unions had spent $330 million over four years nationwide to get their candidates elected.
So far, in 2014, the AFT has donated $50,000 to Connecticut’s congressional delegation, but the unions’ influence gets far more local than that. AFT-Connecticut has been known to spend hard cash to help individual state representatives get elected, not to mention town committee members. Those state lawmakers and town committee members then help set local education budgets.
Lest we forget, both Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and State Board of Education member Andrea Comer recused themselves as a matter of course whenever the issue of charter schools came up.
It seems Benham has only two choices if she wants her presence on the board to be unencumbered by conflicted interest. She could recuse herself from any and all discussions and votes that involve teachers’ unions or Benham could step down as an officer of the union.
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