With its teachers union contract up for renewal, Colorado Springs School District 11 (D11) has spent $118,000 on attaining additional legal counsel and communications support for upcoming interest-based bargaining (IBB) sessions with the Colorado Springs Education Association (CSEA). This is a new move for the district, which has not utilized legal counsel during the annual IBB sessions in the past.

“One of the things that encouraged me to support going out and getting this contract is that there’s another aspect to this bargaining process that deals with or that requires skills outside of my educational background,” said D11 Board Director Sandra Bankes during a March 13 board meeting. “We do this willingly because we are committed to the best that we can provide, and the way that we do that is to be guided by those who have expertise in negotiation. I am not trained in negotiation. I know how to teach kids. I know how to run a school. And I think this is an opportunity for us to maintain the trajectory on which D11 is moving. I think this is an opportunity for us to break out of what we’ve always done and upgrade and evolve into an opportunity that brings us into modern times.”

D11’s board authorized $100,000 to retain West Group and attorney Suzanne Taheri to represent the district during the IBB process, and an additional $18,000 to West Group for communication support during the negotiations. This is in addition to the District’s general counsel contract with the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm, which was renewed in June, 2022.

“Because there’s this attorney-client privilege, the best entity that’s going to be able to share and publicize that communication would come from the legal counsel’s division or entity itself,” said Kris Odom, D11’s Chief of Operations.

“We had a school close last year because of misinformation,” said D11 Board Treasurer Laura Nelson. “I do not want that to happen again. It makes sense to have the individual present during this process to help craft the information and get the facts out to our communities, to our families, to our staff. As long as we’re getting the information out there people can make their choices.”

West Group, formerly Maven Law Group, is composed of former members of Republican Governor Bill Owens’ legal staff, and has been active in conservative causes. West attorney Gwen Benevento registered Heidi Ganahl’s podcast as a 501(c)4 and filed the paperwork for Ganahl’s failed gubernatorial campaign in 2021. Benevento’s husband, Doug, served a controversial 6-year term on the Douglas County School Board, where he pushed for a voucher program, a pay-for-performance salary system and a weakened teachers union. 


Taheri, née Staiert, ran unsuccessfully against Sen. Chris Kolker (D-Centennial) in 2020, and worked under Republican Secretaries of State Wayne Williams and Scott Gessler. Taheri also served as the director of the Public Trust Institute, a conservative nonprofit that submitted complaints against Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) to the Independent Ethics Commission during his 2020 campaign. In 2013, while attempting to defend her boss, Gessler, Taheri publicly expressed her animosity towards the commission in no uncertain terms. In a flurry of tweets from her official account, Taheri called the IEC a “kangaroo court,” said it “doesn’t like women with authority.” She also accused the commission of conducting an unfair hearing, and said that high school students knew more about the law than IEC commissioners.

Last year, Taheri represented DCSB candidate Andy Jones in a campaign finance complaint against DougCo Protective, a conservative nonprofit dedicated to “protecting and preserving conservative values in Douglas County.” The filing came after the Secretary of State investigated an October 2022 complaint by Angela Thomas against the nonprofit for failing to include a “paid for by” disclaimer on a mobile billboard truck playing a video advocating against House Democrat Robert Marshall during the election campaign. The investigation found that Jones, acting on behalf of DougCo Protective, paid $1,100 for the mobile billboard truck. While the group reported the expenditure to the Secretary of State, DougCo Protective never registered as an independent expenditure committee, which it is required to do under campaign finance law. Also, the state’s office found that Aaron Wood, a conservative Christian election conspiracist and outspoken proponent of banning books from Douglas County libraries, produced the video and, when asked to submit the videos in question, sent the office different videos than the ones used in the negative campaign ads.

Most recently, Taheri lost an appeal over a campaign finance violation from her 2020 Senate bid in which she misinterpreted campaign finance law and failed to file the proper paperwork upon declaring her candidacy. Taheri has also joined forces with Advance Colorado’s Michael Fields as a representative of the “School Choice in K-12 Education” initiative, which has been approved by the Title Board to collect signatures. According to former Colorado GOP Chair and Advance Colorado Vice President Kristi Burton Brown, the measure would “put the right to school choice in our Constitution. It is the only way we stop the teachers unions from shuttering charter schools and taking away the right to choose educational options that best fit your own kid across the state.”

D11 came under scrutiny last year for a $40,000 supplemental communications contract awarded to Tsogt Research and Consulting, which had only existed in Colorado since April 7, 2023. The registered agent for the company, Michael Tsogt, graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs in 2022 with a political science degree and was a Koch fellow in 2019. Tsogt currently works as a policy analyst for Advance Colorado.

In an email, D11 Board President Parth Melpakam explained the need for outside counsel. “The board’s objective in negotiations aligns with our established priorities — to improve academic outcomes for all our students and to remove any and all barriers to the highest possible functioning of the District,” he wrote. “After issuing a Request For Proposal (RFP) and considering bids from multiple accomplished firms, the Board of Directors retained West Group to represent the Board and the District during negotiations with all three employee groups. We did this to ensure a high-quality, smooth process for all participants, as well as to free up district staff and faculty. In the past, district employees, including school principals, have represented the Board during negotiations. This year, we engaged a professional firm to participate in negotiations while our principals focus on their respective schools.”

For CSEA President Joe Schott, the decision by D11’s board to retain high-powered, partisan legal counsel is part and parcel of the ideological war against teachers’ unions by conservative education activists.

“When the board pretends that they need to have a private lawyer come in to protect them, we know that’s a part of the playbook,” said Schott. “We know that’s a part of pumping public funds into private pockets — and particularly connected pockets — and all that. The teachers aren’t hiring lawyers to come in and negotiate for them. The fact is that the master agreement is between two representative entities. CSEA, as the collective voice of teachers, and the school board, which is the voice of the public who elected them. Now the board says that they need to have special protection. It’s a rhetorical device that tries to establish characters in this drama. They’re just innocent little public servants who have a need of protection from the teachers. There’s a certain rhetorical stance behind all of this that I think is disingenuous.”

Schott says one of the main issues for this IBB session is the duration of CSEA’s contract with the district. “​​I’d say the big goal is term of agreement,” he said.  “Our current contract expires in the summer of 2025. Term of agreement is one of the big things that’s already been in the [negotiating] room … We negotiated a four-year contract last time we negotiated.”

Weakening unions and union contracts is a major focus of conservative education activism. “Union contracts are created to force the school board to do things it doesn’t want to do because the school board can do anything it wants,” said Ted Mische, who serves as the public/private partnership liaison for Woodland Park Superintendent Ken Witt’s ERBOCES, and is the trainer for the Truth and Liberty Coalition’s “Candidate Academy,” during a Leadership Institute school board training last year. “It can do anything that’s in the contract without a contract. So there’s no purpose for a contract except to force a future board to do what the past board wanted that future board to do. The voters voted for you because they want you to make the decisions, not the past board to make the decisions, or the union to make the decisions.”

During their campaigns last September, current D11 board members attended a town hall hosted by Republican Congressional candidate Deborah Flora. Flora is a board member of the Colorado Parent Advocacy Network (CPAN), an activist group that has advocated against LGBTQ and diversity policies in the Douglas County School District, which is currently facing a lawsuit for its alleged pervasive racism and bullying. Flora is also the creator of the film “Whose Children Are They?” which argues that the modern state of public education is part of a plot engineered by education pioneer John Dewey and teachers unions to enforce cultural Marxism, an antisemitic conspiracy theory popular in far-right circles.

“The board that came before 2021 – Spring 2021 before elections – managed the bargaining agreement with the union,” said D11 Board Secretary Jason Jorgenson during that September 2023 town hall. “When that was still a conservative minority we didn’t have a lot of say, and so they made that contract to 2025. The best thing we could do was ask for them to not discuss the terms of the contract, because the union always wants to have two to three to four years of a contract because they know they’re safe. … If we can give them a two-year and one-year contract, it is easier for us to negotiate. You know, they know they don’t have this long run of safety. And so when the former board, before 2021, had made that agreement to 2025.”

Schott says the benefit of longer contract terms benefits teachers. “The interest for teachers is for stability,” he said. “Teachers want to teach. They don’t want to have to worry about whether or not their rights are going to be curtailed at some point soon. They just want to get in there and teach. Teachers are notoriously apolitical. They always say, ‘I’m not interested in politics. I don’t want to do that.’ Politics is fundamental, right? Because the legislature provides most of the funding. It’s a public institution, so it’s going to be governed by people. The school board is elected. The state has rules about teacher licensure. There’s politics all around it, and yet teachers really don’t want to get involved in politics. They want to put their heads down, nose to the grindstone kind of thing and teach their students. That’s what they want. They want to know that their rights are secure, that they can look to fair treatment, transparent process. If something goes wrong, they know how things are going to happen. They know their voice in setting, curriculum and all this stuff. They have a right to being part of the decision-making … What they don’t want to do is have to fight over it all the time. They just want to teach. The length of contract, the term of contract is really about that stability, so that teachers can focus on their students and not on ideological battles.”