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An Unhealthy Protest: Boulder Valley School District's 'Sick-Out'

By Benjamin DeGrow

Imagine this tactic: organize a large group of your co-workers to call in sick at once to make your already generous boss pay his employees more than he has to offer. Disrupt his business until he meets at least some of your demands.

Hundreds of members of the Boulder Valley Education Association (BVEA) did just that, participating in a widespread “sick-out” in May to demand their school district change its proposed new salary schedule. Perhaps they forgot their employer’s generosity because they didn’t ask the district to spend its money more wisely, only to give them more.

One doesn’t have to look back far to see the gains in earnings that Boulder Valley School District teachers have made. In 1994-95 a newly hired teacher made $21,605. A teacher hired to start this fall is guaranteed $30,096. The nearly 40-percent increase in base salary is well ahead of the past decade’s 26-percent inflationary growth.

According to the most recent statistics available from the Colorado Department of Education, the average Boulder Valley teacher earned $48,952 in salary during 2002-03-third-highest among the state’s 178 school districts, behind only Aspen and Cherry Creek. A Boulder Valley teacher with a masters’ degree and 10 years experience makes nearly $50,000 in salary for 37 weeks of work.

When the Boulder Valley School District proposed diminishing raises to some experienced teachers’ pay in order to raise newer teachers’ salaries more substantially, 900 of the district’s 1,700 teachers organized to call in sick.

On May 17, 90 percent of the district’s Broomfield High School teachers were absent. Several elementary schools were still missing a majority of teachers three days later. Some teachers were still out the following week. BVEA President Mike Altenbern said teachers would go on a full-fledged strike before accepting the district’s proposal.

In contrast with the district’s offer, the union had proposed to increase the base salary to $36,000 and compress the salary schedule so the district’s most educated teachers could make the maximum $73,393 after 15 years of service rather than waiting for 27 years.

But their employer’s financial straits kept them from accepting that proposal. The district had already designated all $3.1 million of the additional state revenues brought in by Amendment 23 to finance employee salary and benefit increases. And the district had maxed out its local funding capacity through mill levy overrides in 1998 and 2002.

The Boulder Valley Board of Education had recently revised its operating budget policy to ensure excess revenues could only fund one-time expenditures and not ongoing programs or expenses. The district simply could not meet the union’s salary demands without cutting educational programs or curing other inefficiencies. But the protesters didn’t demand fewer programs or more efficient spending-they only wanted more money for the salary schedule.

Nine days after the “sick-out” began, the two sides reached a compromise that required Boulder Valley to pay the same amount for salary increases as it had originally designated. However, the district abandoned its original restructuring plan in favor of giving every teacher a one-percent salary increase.

Although the agreement raised teacher salaries at a rate lower than inflation, the union won future concessions. The agreement created a task force of district and union representatives assigned to forge an entirely new salary schedule for the 2005-06 school year.

According to the agreement’s terms, Boulder Valley teachers are guaranteed at least a cost-of-living pay increase for 2005-06. The district has also committed to spend any new state funds on increases in employee health insurance premiums.

Though fairly treated and generously paid, many teachers chose to act inconsiderately. The concerted “sick-out” left students, parents, administrators, and fellow teachers in the lurch. But the action also clearly violated the terms of the teachers’ contract.

Boulder Valley’s current collective bargaining agreement states: “There will be no strikes or other individual or concerted action designed to deprive the youth in the schools of services of Unit B employees [teachers]. Any employee who engages in such actions during the term of this Agreement shall be subject to severe disciplinary action.”

Many Boulder Valley teachers disregarded the terms of the current contract while claiming that the district was not negotiating the new contract in good faith. In order to restore good order and fair dealings to the bargaining table, district administrators should consider disciplining those responsible for the “sick-out”.

(c)2004, The Independence Institute