Teachers in the Park County Re-2 district based in Fairplay are returning to work Thursday with neither the professional agreement nor the pay raises they sought when they started their strike on Oct. 14.
This marks the end of the longest teacher strike in Colorado in decades and the first in recent years to end without any meaningful concessions from the district. Teachers did not have a strike fund when they walked off the job, and district officials were steadfast in refusing to discuss salaries for the current school year, as union members wanted.
Doug Freeman, a teacher and member of the union negotiating team, said officials with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment had urged teachers to return to the classroom. Teachers hope state labor officials will send a factfinder to do an independent review of the district’s finances, something they had sought from the district during the strike.
Through the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union, the South Park Education Association formally requested factfinding on Tuesday. The state teachers union said it does not yet have a commitment.
“We are happy to see the dispute has ended and that both teachers and kids are back in school. We have received a letter from the teachers requesting (the labor department) to facilitate factfinding and are determining appropriate next steps,” department spokeswoman Cher Haavind said in an email Thursday.
The five-member Park County school board will have turned over completely by November, between resignations, new appointments, and members not seeking re-election. Freeman, who said repeatedly that there would be a state factfinder, said union members hope they can make progress toward their goals once they have the results of an independent audit.
“This old board did not want to budge on a lot of issues, including compensation,” Freeman said. “We’re excited to work with a new board, and we’ll have information from a third party about what the district can and can’t afford. This will be a new start for everybody.”
Neither side requested state intervention before the strike. Such intervention can include independent factfinding. However, state labor officials typically only step in when both parties want their help.
The Park County school district employs about 40 teachers and serves roughly 600 students in the high valley of South Park.
Classes were canceled the first week of the strike. District officials said that about 80% of students returned to class when school reopened Monday, and that half of the elementary instructional staff and a third of the high school and middle school staff reported to work. The union disputed those numbers and said that everyone who was on the picket line at the start of the strike stayed on the line until the end.
Freeman said the strike had been “mentally exhausting,” particularly after the district reopened school this week and picketing teachers stood in frigid temperatures and watched their students go to class without them.
Before teachers went on strike earlier this month, they had reached consensus with the district on most aspects of a new professional agreement, including securing for the first time the right to bargain over compensation. But the district did not want to discuss salaries, instead asking teacher to ratify the new contract (the old one had expired over the summer) and then discuss wages for future years without the threat of a strike.
Teachers refused to ratify the agreement and walked off the job. Now they’re returning to work without a contract. But Freeman said the decision to reject the district’s offer was not a lost opportunity. Instead, he hopes there will be more financial transparency going forward and that eventually teachers will get an agreement they can support.
The two sides reached a re-entry agreement with the help of a federal mediator that promises no retaliation and allows teachers to make up most of their lost wages through a combination of personal leave and extra school days in the calendar.
“Overall, the board and the association will continue to endeavor to have positive relations and communications in order to provide the best educational opportunities for the district’s students,” the district said in a press release.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the Colorado Education Association says it does not have a commitment from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to send a factfinder to Park County, despite comments to the contrary from a Park County teacher.