Joe Torrez

Park County School District RE-2 superintendent. (Photo courtesy of Park County School District RE-2)

South Park Educators Association and the Park County School District RE-2 recently reached a memorandum of understanding, prompting teachers to return to the classrooms Oct. 24 following a 10-day strike.

The memorandum does not include any agreement on compensation and will have to be approved by the district at a special meeting as soon as it can be scheduled. The agreement was approved by the union late that same night.

The temporary agreement was reached through the assistance of a federal mediator over the course of this week. As a means of securing specific, long-term solutions, the SPEA, through the Colorado Education Association, filed a request with the Colorado Department of Labor to have an independent third party examine the finances of the PCSD RE-2.

That request was also met with approval by the district.

SPEA President Taya Mastrobuono said the teachers were happy to return.

“I am proud to go back to my classroom tomorrow after spending ten days fighting for my students’ futures,” said Mastrobuono. “I know all SPEA members share my enthusiasm to see our kids again and continue the critical work we do to help all students learn, grow and reach their full potential.”

In an email to The Flume, the school board stated that “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.”

Even though educators and the district are still negotiating critical aspects of the ongoing salary dispute, PCSD Superintendent Joe Torrez, in an interview with The Flume, says he is pleased to have teachers back in the classrooms.

“I am definitely happy to have the teachers back,” Torrez said. “Educating our students is our business, and having the teachers and their expertise back in the building is a positive thing.”

In addition to drawing some comfort from the teachers’ return to school, Torrez is optimistic that an independent evaluation of the district’s finances will pave the way for more fruitful negotiations in the very near future.

But in the meantime, Torrez is dealing with a complete reshuffling of the current school board following the resignation of board President Kim Bundgaard, effective Nov. 21. Bundgaard announced her resignation at the district’s last regularly scheduled Oct. 17 meeting.

“The board will declare a notice of vacancy, then there will be an application and interviewing process,” Torrez explained. “Then, the five-member board will reorganize amongst themselves.”

Public input has been plentiful, and at times highly critical of both the board and the superintendent. During the public comment portion of the Oct. 17 school board meeting, however, the primary message from the public was clear.

“What we have been hearing from the public is that they want us to get focused and wrap up an agreement,” Torrez said. “The public is making itself more educated about all facets of the district as a result of this process, and that is a good thing.”

One of the most significant impacts of the salary dispute has been the division of a normally tight-knit mountain community. The dispute has spawned passionate disagreements on both sides, and Torrez says the healing process will take time.

“I don’t think a return to normalcy will be like flipping a switch,” Torrez admitted. “I think healing within the community will be a process, and we are getting help with that process internally.”

In a press release dated Oct. 18, the district provided highlights of the New Professional Agreement, which addressed some of the concerns of the teachers:

• Regaining recognition as the sole and exclusive bargaining agent by the district for two years.

• A new right to negotiate salaries, a right it did not formally have.

• Increases to the supplemental pay rates.

• Compensation to mentor teachers.

• Inclusion of a board representative to the joint problem-solving team to assist with good communication and additional transparency.

• Removal from the contract year of the previously agreed-upon additional two work days to the 2020-2021 school year, which would have been provided to all teachers and SSPs at their per diem in the salary schedule.

• The ability to “open up” the complete New Professional Agreement for negotiations every other year.

• An additional disclosure and discussion process for negotiating salaries.

But nothing in the New Professional Agreement indicates that the district is willing to increase the current salaries of the teachers, which has been the major sticking point between the teachers and the district.

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