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As Pueblo school strike looms, Colorado Springs teachers union forging new deal

May 4, 2018 Updated: May 5, 2018 at 7:36 am
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Kevin Vick is leaving his job as president of the Colorado Springs School District 11 union, the Colorado Springs Education Association, and taking a state job with the Colorado Education Association. Thursday, May 3, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

As teachers in Pueblo City Schools prepare to strike on Monday, Colorado Springs' only collective bargaining educators' union is close to ratifying a new master agreement for next school year.

There's no strike expected - teachers in Colorado Springs School District 11 haven't gone on strike since 1975.

Electronic voting will conclude at noon Tuesday for the Colorado Springs Education Association's 1,800 members who work in D-11, said the association's president, Kevin Vick.

Months-long contract negotiations were "very productive" this year, he said.

While specifics won't be released until members agree to the terms, Vick said outstanding issues from previous years were addressed, such as stipends for teachers doing additional work outside of the contract, as well as raises and increases to benefits.

The combination of last November's voter-approved property tax increase for D-11 residents, along with a larger-than-expected buy down of state education debt led to a "particularly good year," Vick said, in terms of the offer.

Nationwide, teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona have walked out of classrooms this year, demanding more pay and money for education from lawmakers.

Colorado teachers held three rallies last month at the state Capitol, also calling for more education funding from lawmakers. The last drew so many teachers that many districts were forced to cancel classes for the day.

"The power of having 14,000 educators together to share their challenges about funding and how inadequate funding affects students was great," said Phyllis Robinette, who as chair of the Pikes Peak Education Association represents 27 local educator groups.

"Classroom sizes have grown over the years, many teachers don't have enough materials, they're spending their own money on supplies, they don't have the assistants they need to help with special-needs kids," she said. "I was so touched and moved by all the different layers that have impacted the way we do right by our kids."

It's been 43 years since teachers in D-11 walked out of classes for about a week and marched in picket lines during a bona fide labor action. They were upset about not receiving the proper respect and recognition as a partner in the district, according to Vick.

As with Pueblo School District 60 teachers, the discontent also was about salaries.

Both sides eventually reached a settlement.

Since then, D-11 teachers, administrators and school boards have been able to work out their disagreements and prevent a union strike and lost classroom time for students.

"Maintaining open communication" between all parties and building "a solid professional relationship" have been the keys to successful negotiations, Vick said.

"We in all cases try to collaborate; it's one of our main philosophies," he said. "We balance taking a strong stand for teachers and making sure that you're not needlessly antagonizing.

"Even when we were in our extremely difficult financial situation, we had a sense we were struggling together."

The situation and concerns of Pueblo teachers are different, Vick added.

D-11 board member Elaine Naleski said good leadership in both the union and the district have created a viable working relationship in D-11.

"When you have that, there's no need for a strike," she said.

A previous board wanted to bust the union, Naleski said, which could have ended in a strike. But the administration and the union were able to avoid a walkout.

What sets D-11 apart from the region's 16 other public school districts is that it has a master agreement that's renegotiated annually and that includes compensation.

Other local teachers' associations are professional membership organizations, in which members usually don't go on strike because they don't have the collective bargaining clout behind them to be effective.

The Woodland Park Education Association in Woodland Park School District RE-2 has a master agreement and annually discusses issues with district representatives in a mediated format, said President Anna Thompson.

That normally happens in November, after the state's official October pupil count, which determines state funding for public schools.

But there are no negotiations, and salaries are not part of the deal. Compensation is based on the district's budget, not an agreement between the association and district leadership.

Policies involving teachers and updates to state laws are among the issues discussed.

Much of what the association does is provide professional resources for teachers, Thompson said, such as information on student loans.

"We attempt to be professional representatives for all staff," Thompson said. "We're teachers in the district that staff can go to if they have questions or concerns, and provide resources for their professional development."

In Harrison School District 2, a Collaborative Decision Making Team examines issues including compensation each year, but doesn't negotiate, said spokeswoman Christine O'Brien. The discussions result in an Agreement of Trust and Understanding with salaries and benefits, calendars and work schedules, and other matters addressed.

Discussions now are in the works as to "what increases staff might receive, with our board of education taking a look at different scenarios in light of current funding and budget updates from the state and the district," O'Brien said.

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