APTOPIX Denver Teachers Strike

Teachers carry placards as they walk a picket line outside South High School early Feb. 11 in Denver.

Teachers in Colorado's Park County, by an overwhelming majority, have voted to strike if the district fails to boost teacher pay. It would be the second teacher strike in Colorado this year, following the walkout in February by the Denver Classroom Teachers' Association.

The Colorado Education Association (CEA), on behalf of the South Park Education Association (SPEA), filed a notice of intent to strike last Friday with the state Department of Labor and Employment. A firm date for a strike has not yet been determined, according to the CEA.

More than 90% of SPEA's 29 members voted to strike on Sept. 4. The contract between the Park County RE-2 School District and SPEA expired on June 30. The two sides have been negotiating since February, according to a Board of Education news release.

The top issue separating the two sides: teacher pay.

“A strike is not inevitable. We took a strike vote today because we are serious about quickly resolving this urgent need to hold on to caring, dedicated school employees who love educate our students daily and who believe in this community,” said SPEA President Taya Mastrobuono in a Sept. 4 statement.

“If the district is equally serious about resolving this crisis for our community, they will meet with us at a bargaining table before seeing us on a picket line.”

The district 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.

Both sides are on the same page on negotiating a multi-year agreement that would run through June 30, 2021. But that's where it appears to stall.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education announced it had made a “comprehensive proposal” to SPEA that recognizes the union as the negotiating unit for teachers and “specialized service providers.” However, the comprehensive proposal does not include salary discussions; the news release said that “ the District does not believe an additional raise — beyond what has already been provided for the 2019-2020 school year — is financially feasible or fiscally responsible.”

The proposal offered by the Board on Tuesday would set up a process to exchange financial documentation, recommendations and to discuss mediation.

“This proposal is a far more robust way for the District and SPEA to engage in dialogue about compensation, as the prior professional agreement did not include a contractual right for SPEA to specifically engage in salary negotiations,” the board news release said. This proposal also aims to address SPEA’s concerns over financial transparency.

SPEA is seeking a $6,000 across-the-board increase for teacher pay, which reflects the growing cost-of-living in Park County. The Board of Education pointed out in July that it had to adopt its budget and salary scale by June 30, and the salary scale approved by the board increased base salary by 6.5%, "plus an annual step [increase] that resulted in a 9.2% increase to base salary."

The board also said that teachers also have a fully funded benefits package, a set number of working days in the school year (153), professional development and "general leave time that compares very favorably to other, similarly-situated school districts in Colorado. The district was able to provide these raises sustainably, without cutting other benefits or engaging in deficit spending to meet ongoing demands," according to the July statement. 

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 on the issue of salary.

The two sides have agreed to sit down on Saturday morning in a public bargaining session in Fairplay to try and hammer out an agreement that SPEA says would include salary discussions. SPEA hopes “the district comes to the table on Saturday to offer a serious proposal, one that honors and invests in its educators and does right by students,” according to Mastrobuono.

The school board has three seats up for election in November, but only one person has filed to run for one of those seats. In 2017, when two seats were available, six candidates filed to run, but only 34.5% of the ballots actually included a preference on the candidates.

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