Write-in candidate challenges school board President Andrew Caplan
In November, three names will be on the ballot for three Park City Board of Education seats. But in one race, there will be a line to write in a candidate’s name along with the name of an incumbent board member, after Thomas Cooke, a member of the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, recently launched a write-in campaign.
He is challenging one-term incumbent and board President Andrew Caplan in District 2. The seats are geographically apportioned.
Cooke lives in the Trailside neighborhood and has lived in the Park City area since 1993, when he came out for one season as a ski bum. He has a master’s degree in English and works as a digital marketing consultant and freelance writer. His daughter previously attended Park City schools but the family opted for the Winter Sports School as her ski racing career became more serious.
In addition to serving on the Snyderville Basin Planning Commission, Cooke has been involved in coaching and administering youth sports programs.
Caplan is running for his second term on the Board of Education. He lives in the Old Ranch Road neighborhood and has a fourth-grader at Parley’s Park Elementary School and a kindergartner. He works in international finance and has a bachelor’s degree in government and economics.
He said continuity on the board is important and that his experience in the finance world would continue to serve the board well as it navigates big-ticket capital projects that will likely involve issuing debt and bonds.
Caplan said he was particularly proud of the work the board has done in his first term regarding school safety, lowering class sizes, master planning for district facilities and mental health initiatives.
But he said he was most proud of increasing teacher compensation.
Cooke said he is not running because of dissatisfaction with the way the district returned to school amid the pandemic, acknowledging the difficulty of that process. He hopes, rather, to increase transparency on the board, disseminate more information to parents and teachers, and to restore trust in the district and the board that he says is flagging.
“I think right now, the board needs to get the trust of the community back, and the first step is to listen to the community,” Cooke said. “… People don’t really care what you know until they know that you care. First thing I want people to know is that I care. I care about our teachers. I care about our students.”
Caplan pushed back on the notion that the board hasn’t been listening to the community, and contended that the board, the district administration and the union representing teachers saw eye-to-eye through the reopening process.
“Were we on the same page about reopening? Yes. Were we on the same page about salary increases? Absolutely,” Caplan said.
Cooke filed one week after the Park City School District sent a letter to teachers that he said prompted him to run.
“That letter was an embodiment of the heavy-handedness (of the board): ‘We’re doing this, I don’t want to hear any complaints,’” Cooke said.
The Aug. 24 letter was signed by the five members of the board and sent privately to teachers and later obtained by The Park Record. Parts of the letter appear to link a proposed compensation increase — which was later approved — with support for the district’s plans to return to in-person schooling.
“Please understand that the actions of a few are jeopardizing our ability to deliver on this much warranted salary increase,” the letter states. “When a group of your peers continuously undermine the district through print, radio and social media because they are not getting their way please understand it hurts us all in the eyes of the community.”
Cooke said he counts several teachers among his friends and that many of them are anxious about the return to school but fear speaking out.
“To me that’s a gag order: ‘Don’t talk about your anxieties or your discomfort with how we’re going back,’ when I think that’s exactly what the school board should be doing,” Cooke said of the letter.
Cooke added that he thought the board had lost the trust of the teachers and that he was running to regain it.
Caplan said the teachers who opposed the district’s reopening plans were a vocal minority and that passing what he called a record-breaking salary increase would have been a tough sell to the community if teachers decided not to return to the classroom and the district resumed remote-only learning.
The Board of Education passed a $2.4 million compensation increase for staff members on Aug. 26.
Caplan and the board have expressed a desire to increase teacher compensation and have done so multiple times. But Caplan said the raise couldn’t have happened when it did if teachers had refused to come back to school. He added that he had been thanked by multiple teachers and members of the teacher’s union for the letter.
“The vast majority of community members as well as staff were happy,” Caplan said of returning efforts. “… It’s a perfect example, regardless of how much time, effort and planning you put into something, it’s impossible to please everyone. Had we simply listened to the loudest critics, we wouldn’t have gone back to school.”
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Park City School District’s Board of Directors is getting closer to a price tag for its district-wide plan to increase class space and improve wraparound services at its schools, but no decision has been made on how much of that $140 million will be part of a bond election.