PUEBLO, Colo.— Teachers in Pueblo went on strike Monday, shutting down schools in a dispute over how much they should be paid for the school year that's nearly over.
The strike comes as frustrated teachers in several states have won pay increases.
Teachers in the historically pro-union community want a 2 percent cost of living raise for the current school year, which was recommended by a fact finder brought in to help reach an agreement. But the school district says it cannot afford another raise for the teachers until the state begins to pay it back next year for underfunding during the recession.
Qualified teachers, who have been working under an expired contract since August, received raises based on their experience and education levels.
Teachers turned down last-minute offers of one-time stipends for this year that would have deferred raises until next year. Unlike the stipends, the raises would become a part of teachers' base pay and the starting point for future increases.
Teachers won raises in the last two years after drawn out negotiations. They have said they are tired and distrustful of the school district's promises, union president Suzanne Ethredge said.
The district says it would be irresponsible for it to again dip into its reserves to fund teachers raises.
After several years of tense contract talks, Ethredge said he thinks teachers in Pueblo would have voted to strike even without encouragement from the national movement.
"I think it did give people a little bit of a boost to make that decision, but I think it would have happened anyway," Ethredge said.
Despite a booming economy, Colorado ranked 40th in the U.S. for per pupil spending in 2012-13, according to the Colorado School Finance Project. That is largely because of the state's strict constitutional tax-and-spending limits.
While another constitutional amendment requires the state to increase spending on schools each year, state lawmakers who do not have the power to raise taxes without voter approval changed the way they calculated that increase during the recession to balance the Colorado's budget by providing less money for extras like at-risk student funding.
That has particularly hurt less prosperous communities like Pueblo that have smaller tax bases to tap to supplement state funding as other districts have. Pueblo recently decided to join the over half of Colorado districts, most of them rural, that have switched to a four-day school week to save money.
A former teacher who now heads the Pueblo school board, Barb Clementi, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Pueblo Chieftain that people should focus on what she said is the root of the problem — state funding.
Clementi said the district expects to get another $7 million to $8 million from the state for the next school year while a proposed ballot measure to raise taxes on people earning over $150,000 could bring the district $30 million a year.
"With additional resources, together we can develop a plan that will offer more competitive salaries, attract and retain the best teachers, and ensure the high quality education that our students and community deserve," she said.
Teachers have the right to strike in Colorado after giving notice to the state.
Last week, the state labor department declined to intervene in the Pueblo dispute after neither side asked for it to exercise its full power to do so, although the school district did ask for the state's guidance.
Teacher strikes in Colorado have been rare in recent history. Denver teachers went on strike in 1994 and returned to work after Gov. Roy Romer intervened.
The Pueblo Chieftain reports that this is the first educators strike in Colorado in a quarter of a century.