District staff members see a chance for change

Mike Lawrence
The 15-member bargaining team has six meetings planned during the next five weeks.

The meetings began Thursday and continue today, Jan. 19, Jan. 20, Feb. 2 and Feb. 3. Meetings will continue until next year's contract policies, which include salaries and benefits, are finalized.

Dr. Larry Nesbit will facilitate the meetings. He is a former teacher, superintendent and educational administrator who Superintendent Donna Howell said has significant experience in bargaining procedures. This is the first year the bargaining team will use a facilitator. Several team members expressed hope that Nesbit's participation will create a faster, more productive bargaining process.

"We desperately need a facilitator. I think that's going to make a huge difference," team member Jerry Buelter said. Buelter is the assistant principal at Steamboat Springs Middle School.

— As bargaining begins for teacher and staff contracts for the 2006-07 school year, several employees of the Steamboat Springs School District say pay increases are needed.

“I think the primary issue is salary and benefits,” said Barb Keenan, a first-grade teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School. “We are still losing teachers because they can’t afford to live here. They can’t afford to buy a home here, and they can’t afford to raise a family here, so they’re going to other districts.”

Keenan has taught in the district for 20 years and represents teachers on the district’s interest-based bargaining team, which began meeting Thursday night. Her comments echo those made by Tom Miller-Freutel, president of the Steamboat Springs School Board, who said this week that increasing teacher pay is vital to maintaining the high quality of local schools.

The 15-member bargaining team includes district administrators, teachers and school staff, including Steve Schibline, who has worked in the district for 15 years. For the past 11 years, Schibline has driven a school bus and worked as head custodian at Steamboat Springs Middle School.

“There’s quite a few of us support staff who are multi-taskers,” said Schibline, who has participated in the district’s contract negotiations for more than a decade. He said extra-duty pay and better pay schedules are two issues he will bring to the table in the coming weeks.

Schibline said the interest-based process the bargaining team is using this year, along with meetings moderated by a facilitator, should create a faster path to consensus on contract issues. “The last three years have been the most brutal. We realized that we were pulling too many teachers out of the classrooms (for bargaining meetings),” he said. “We were doing these all-day, knock-down, drag-em-out collaborative bargaining sessions. This year, I’m optimistic that we’re going to get somewhere.”

Mike Johnson, a fifth-grade teacher at Strawberry Park Elementary School who serves on the bargaining team, said teacher and staff pay is not the only important issue. “Our responsibility is to look at issues other than salary and benefits,” said Johnson, who has taught in the district for 21 years and is a former president of the Steamboat Springs Education Association, the district’s teachers union.

Johnson said surveys of staff morale, evaluations of the superintendent and School Board, and more preparation time in teacher schedules would make the district more appealing to applicants. “I want to see us look at ways to attract and retain (teachers) that don’t involve money,” he said. “That’s not a cost item to the district — it’s just creative thinking.”

Keenan, in her fourth year on the bargaining team, expressed optimism for the coming meetings. “The process has been frustrating in the past, but we are hopeful this year, with our new facilitator, that the process will be more successful and rewarding for everybody,” she said.

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