Boulder Teachers Prepare to Walk Over Strike Precipice … For What Now?

Update, 1:40 PM: Westword’s Michael Roberts notes that the Boulder Valley Education Association president is sending different messages about the possibility of a strike to members and the media.

(H/T Complete Colorado) The Daily Camera reports today that the Boulder Valley Education Association has filed official notice of the intent to strike. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a strike will happen or will happen imminently, but raises the specter of crossing picket lines to get to classrooms.

Colorado’s Labor Peace Act (PDF) requires a 40-day notice in the filing of intent to strike. That puts us right into early November. In the meantime, the director of the state’s Department of Labor is obligated to issue a ruling whether he believes the walkout “would interfere with the preservation of the public peace, health, and safety.” In the likely event that a ruling would determine such an interference, the director then is obligated to order mediation and ultimately arbitration.

However, as was ruled by district court judge Larry Naves during the 1994 Denver teachers strike, there is no legal obligation for either or both sides to accept the director’s proposals. Ultimately, it is up to the Boulder officials and employees to determine their course of action. The 1992 state supreme court decision Martin v Montezuma-Cortez protects the right of public employees to strike.

As indicated in the Daily Camera article, we are coming up on the 15th anniversary of Colorado’s last teachers strike. We can only hope that local school officials and community members will heed the lesson of Denver’s October 1994 walkout: No Work, No Pay (PDF).

During the last strike, Denver Public Schools issued the policy “No restitution for lost wages or benefits.” But as part of negotiations to end the strike, the school board ended up conceding by creating an additional three paid in-service days at the end of the 1994-95 school year. In the end, it was overwhelmingly the students and the city who lost.

Fast-forward again to the present: The issue at the heart of Boulder’s dispute? The union wants “a professional salary schedule — designed to raise the starting salary for teachers and create more rewards for continuing education” — a funding approach completely disconnected from the goal of promoting academic excellence. Study after study shows zero connection between teacher master degree credentials and student learning. ZERO.

The so-called “professional salary schedule” merely would be a sop to the union. So are teachers in Boulder currently underpaid? Judge for yourselves.

As the Daily Camera points out, the average 2008-09 BVSD teacher salary was $55,970 — fourth highest in the metro area (and fourth highest statewide). But here are some more facts to give a clearer picture of Boulder Valley teacher compensation:

  • On the district’s 2008-09 salary schedule (PDF), first year teachers with a BA start at $33,518, while PhD teachers at Step 24 top out at $82,555. Teachers with a BA top out at the 8th year at $48,601.
  • Teachers typically receive about $450 per month in district contribution toward health and dental benefits.
  • All BVSD teachers are members of the Public Employee Retirement Association (PERA). An employee’s pension contribution rate stands at 8% of salary, while the district’s contribution rate stands at 10.15%. However, the true value of pension benefits can be found in the deferred compensation for career employees.
  • In a contract year of 187 days, a full-time BVSD teacher is allotted 12 annual leave days for personal & sick purposes (see section E-26, pg 42 of the bargaining agreement). Other various forms of leave day opportunities are available under certain conditions, as outlined in various parts of the collective bargaining agreement.
  • Per section C, pgs 7-8, of the contract, 176 of the 187 days are reserved for student contact — off the remaining 11, 5.5 days are dedicated to unprogrammed teacher work / preparation days, and professional development sponsored by the district (1.5 days) and the school principal (4 days) makes up the rest.
  • The existing contract also specifies a 37.5 hour per week schedule (including a minimum of 4.5 hours of duty-free planning time and 30 minutes per day of duty-free lunch). The contract specifies further details for elementary vs. middle school vs. high school. The problem is based on their job assignment and level of experience, some teachers can complete all their duties within the contract hours, while others have to take lots of work home with them. But their pay is not differentiated.
  • Finally, tuition reimbursement up to $2,000 in a four-year period is available to teachers who complete professionally relevant academic coursework (see section E-44, pg 50).

One thing is clear: Neither the district nor the union is taking a thoughtful, visionary, reform-minded approach to this dispute. But what’s even worse than the status quo is the serious contemplation of a destructive work action over a lucrative but regressive compensation structure that will strike (pun intended) many as offensive in light of current unemployment realities and the state of the economy.

I hope everyone involved takes a deep breath before walking over the precipice. Colorado’s first teachers strike in 15 years would be bad news.

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