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Park City School Board Candidates Discuss Budget, Future Plans And Address Transparency Concerns

A photo of Park City High School.
Wikimedia Commons
Thomas Cooke, a longtime Park City resident and member of the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, is hoping to unseat current Park City School Board president Andrew Caplan.

With schools one of the major focal points of the coronavirus pandemic in Utah, district board members have begun to play an outsized role in their communities.

School boards are responsible for managing budgets and helping determine how to meet federal and state academic standards. And during the pandemic, they’ve been responsible for setting reopening plans, many of which have faced criticism and pushback from parents and teachers.

Three of five Park City board members are up for reelection. Only one, however, faces opposition.

Thomas Cooke, a longtime Park City resident and member of the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, recently announced his intent to run as a write-in candidate. He’ll face current board President Andrew Caplan, who runs a financial services firm.

Both joined current board members Anne Peters and Wendy Crossland in a forum hosted by the Park City Rotary Club Tuesday, where the candidates discussed the district’s budget, future plans and how the board communicates with the public.

It was the latter that turned out to be the most debated topic, and one of the main reasons Cooke said he wanted to join the race. In an op-ed in the Park Record, he wrote that he was concerned about a response he received from Caplan when he voiced concerns about the district’s reopening plans, calling it “defensive” and “hostile.”

The board faced criticism in August for a private letter it sent out to teachers, hinting that if teachers didn’t stop voicing concerns about reopening plans, the board might withhold a raise they had promised.

Teachers ultimately got the raise, but Cooke said some had been afraid to speak out and were worried about potential retaliation. He said the district also hasn’t been clear about how much teachers were getting.

“I think the public would be well served by knowing what the average teacher is going to make,” he said. “I know it's complicated, but there's some discord there between what's being said and what's being heard.”

He also said he was hearing from community members about their concerns over how the district was reporting it’s COVID-19 cases. It is one of several in the state to have recently added a dashboard on its website — which Cooke said was an improvement over its previous Google spreadsheet — though the numbers don’t match the state’s.

Caplan said the discrepancy comes down to the time periods used to assess cases. The district reports cases occurring within the last two weeks, while the state counts cases over a three-week period. The district has also clarified the issue on its website.

As for teacher salaries, Caplan said teachers can get specific information about their pay raises from their union, the Park City Education Association. While Cooke said he was hearing from teachers who thought they were only getting a 3% raise annually, Caplan said the district approved a 20-25% increase. He noted starting salaries are now $60,000 a year for a teacher with a master’s degree, which he said sets the bar higher for teachers around the state.

“It's a huge amount,” he said. “And that comes from the recognition that teachers' jobs are getting harder and harder and [Park City] is getting less and less affordable.”

Residents can vote on the school board Nov. 3.

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