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Park County teacher strike enters its second week

Kiersten Macreery, a third grade teacher for Park County School District, leads a chant on the first day of a teacher strike in Fairplay.
Kiersten Macreery, a third grade teacher for Park County School District, leads a chant on the first day of a teacher strike in Fairplay.
RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

A teacher strike in Colorado’s high country is entering its second week with no sign of how or when the labor dispute will be resolved.

Teachers in Park County went on strike Oct. 14. Roughly 40 teachers serve some 600 students in the district based in Fairplay. Educators there are seeking raises that they say are necessary to stem turnover. In the lead up to the strike, the two sides had reached agreement on many aspects of a new contract — including giving the union the ability to bargain over salaries for the first time — but talks foundered when the union wanted to discuss salaries for the current school year.

The district and the union met repeatedly last week with the help of a federal mediator, but did not reach an agreement. This is the third Colorado teacher strike in less than 18 months and now the longest of the three.

Late last week, the union proposed that the two sides hire a factfinder to do an independent review of the district’s finances. Superintendent Joe Torrez offered a counterproposal Friday evening that did not include the factfinder. Union members rejected that counterproposal over the weekend and decided to continue their strike.

Also last week, school board President Kim Bundgaard announced that she would be resigning from the board at the Nov. 21 meeting but said her departure had been planned since July and was not related to the strike. The board has seen significant turnover and seated two new appointed members at the regular meeting Thursday. Union leaders have called for Bundgaard and other incumbent board members to step down immediately to allow for new leadership.

Doug Freeman, a Park County teacher and member of the union negotiating team, said teachers are frustrated by the lack of progress.

“It’s really eye-opening how little they value us,” he said. “Now we feel disrespected.”

Bundgaard, who did not participate directly in Friday’s talks, described herself as “at a loss” over the ongoing strike. The district wants union members to adopt a new professional agreement, or contract, and return to work, then use the framework in that agreement to discuss future raises. Bundgaard said she had believed the new professional agreement was teachers’ top priority.

“It’s a concern for me that we’re not speaking the same language,” she said.

Freeman said that at this point, union members are willing to set aside their request for more compensation until after a factfinder’s review, but they want a commitment that a third party will look closely at the district’s finances.

“We don’t want to bankrupt the district,” Freeman said. “That’s not in our interest.”

Teachers have pointed to the large amount of money the district rolls over each year to say it can afford higher salaries, while district officials say they need that money for cash flow purposes.

“The compensation issue is not about a raise, it’s about retaining teachers,” Freeman said. “We need to stop the revolving door. Teachers are leaving because we cannot afford to live here, and the way we want to solve that is with our salary schedule.”

The Park County school board approved raises in May that amount to an average 6.5% increase, but union representatives say those raises did not benefit all teachers equally and are not enough to keep the district competitive and retain teachers in a community where housing costs have increased rapidly. Average teacher salary in the district is around $41,000, on the low end for districts in the same administrative unit and 30% less than neighboring Summit County, home to affluent ski resort communities.

District officials announced Sunday that schools would be open to students starting Monday, with the help of substitute teachers and support staff. Classes and afterschool activities were canceled all last week.

“Children need to be in school,” Bundgaard said, promising regular class schedules with academic content. “We have some teaching staff who have chosen to come to work, as well as all our support staff. We have had substitutes from throughout the region step up and offer to help.”

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