Teachers in the South Park Educators Association (SPEA), who voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on Sept. 6, announced Monday they have set a strike date for next Monday, Oct. 14, unless they can work out an agreement with Park County RE-2's Board of Education.
SPEA and the Park County RE-2 school district have been negotiating since the last contract expired on June 30.
What's kept the two sides apart: teacher salaries. SPEA has asked for a $6,000 across-the-board raise for teachers, noting the high cost of living in Park County. The district, led by Board of Education President Kim Bundgaard, has maintained that the budget for 2019-20 provided for a 6.5% increase in base salary, about $2,000, "plus an annual step [increase] that resulted in a 9.2% increase to base salary." The district has said that SPEA's proposal is not financially feasible nor fiscally responsible.
The two sides worked with a mediator in two sessions in August and made progress, according to union representatives, but the mediation and further negotiations broke down last month over the salary issue. Several meetings were scheduled in September and and then canceled; they last formally met on Aug. 23.
According to an Oct. 2 SPEA statement, the two sides will sit down on Wednesday, Oct. 9, to hopefully resolve the conflict and come to an agreement without a strike. SPEA President Taya Mastrobuono, an elementary school teacher, said in the Oct. 2 statement that teachers want to restore "the contract with educator input on achieving fair, professional pay and good working conditions," and collaborate on a solution for "retaining and hiring caring, qualified educators who can meet student needs."
SPEA has pointed out that teachers are leaving for other districts because they "cannot survive in this community on low, non-competitive wages. Parents want the district to work with us to find common ground and come to a mutual agreement that honors and invests in educators who choose a rewarding career helping Park County students thrive.”
However, that optimism has since faded; Mastrobuono said Monday that “SPEA members are skeptical at best that Wednesday’s meeting will be productive, if it happens at all. We reached a decision together that it is necessary to announce our strike date before the scheduled Wednesday meeting to put the district on notice that its stalling tactics do not work from this point forward.”
"Our students need consistent educators to help them grow and thrive," Mastrobuono continued. "If the district comes to the table Wednesday ready to collaborate on a fair agreement that ends our educator retention crisis, members could take action Oct. 14 to ratify a contract instead of taking a different action with picket signs. The district will hear educators' voice one way or the other. We prefer our voice is heard in a meeting room and not from the street, but we are prepared for either scenario."
The district, concerned that teachers might walk out on Oct. 2 — a critical counting day that determines state funding — stated on Sept. 17 that it has no obligation to recognize SPEA after the most recent contract expired on June 30, and that the union has no contractual right to bargain on behalf of teachers. According to that Sept. 17 statement, Bundgaard said "the district is not sitting on stockpiles of money, as suggested by SPEA. The district continues to believe that an additional raise is not financially feasible ...."
Park County RE-2, one of two school districts in Park County, enrolled 698 students in 2018-19, a 5% decline from the previous year. However, enrollment is up overall by about 100 students, or 16% over the past decade and by 6.45% over the last five years, according to data from the state Department of Education.
Should Park County educators be forced to strike, the union has arranged childcare with the Boys and Girls Club of South Park, and is hosting a food and goods drive for the Boys and Girls Club and a local food bank, according to the Oct. 2 news release.
Late Monday afternoon, the district said in a statement that talks have been progressing toward a "New Professional Agreement" that would recognize SPEA as the bargaining unit for teachers and special service providers, and allow the parties to have an agreement in place through June 30, 2021.
After several back-and-forths between the district and SPEA, "a draft of the New Professional Agreement with comments was provided to SPEA" on Monday, allowing the union to have time to review it prior to Wednesday's meeting. "The District remains hopeful that the meeting on Wednesday will allow the parties to finalize the document so that it can be ratified and approved later this month."
If Park County teachers walk out, it will be the second strike over teacher pay in Colorado this year. Denver Public Schools teachers went out on strike for three days last February.