WA teachers to walk out


First Posted: 8/31/2013

The strike is on.

Classes at Wyoming Area School District will be cancelled on Tuesday if the teachers’ union and the school board can’t come to an agreement.

And the chances of that happening are slim.

Union members have been working under the terms of an expired contract for over three years.

John Holland, the primary negotiator for the union, said that while the two sides were “whiskers away from a settlement” on Monday, the school board walked out of negotiations. The sides met again on Thursday, but a deal wasn’t reached.

“(Talks) obviously didn’t go well because we’re striking on Tuesday,” Holland said.

Both sides say they are willing to continue negotiations, but neither side is taking the initiative to arrange a meeting.

District Solicitor Jarrett Ferentino said board wants to be fair and do what’s “affordable and reasonable.”

“We need to balance the needs of the teachers, the students, the taxpayers and the entire district as a whole,” Ferentino said. “This isn’t about what the union deserves. They certainly deserve more than we can give.”

Ferentino said when the district received a strike notice on June 27, the board was committed to addressing the three major concerns of the union: Premium sharing for healthcare, a retroactive wage freeze for the 2011-2012 school year and some protective language regarding staying in the Northeast Health Trust.

He said the district addressed each of them.

In exchange for small accommodations in healthcare, which include an increased deductible and moving to a PPO plan, the board offered to forgo any premium share.

The board offered a one-time stipend and no step movement for the 2011-2012 school year or movement but no pay increase that year. Also, the district agreed to stay in the trust.

“The union has rejected our offers and is seeking an additional wage increase,” Ferentino said.

Holland said the district is offering step increases, which come after a teacher attends higher education classes, but not true raises.

“We don’t see step movement as a raise,” Holland said. “They just want step movement. We want a raise.”

Steps keep the district from having to pay the highest rate of pay for up to 16 years, the minimum amount of time a teacher can move through the steps, Holland said.

“The district isn’t willing to change its offer,” Holland said. “They’re just reshuffling the deck. All they do is they move things around, but they are giving the same proposal over and over.”

Also, the district wants the retirement incentive to expire, but the union insists on keeping that.

“We view that as a benefit to everyone,” Holland said. “The higher-paid teachers are retiring and the district can bring in newer, lower paid teachers or not fill the position.”

The union has warned of the costs to the district associated with a strike. Members of the support staff will need to be brought in on the make-up days. Those employees are guaranteed to work a specific number of days in their contract and will likely require overtime.

The union ran an ad last week in local newspapers as a letter to taxpayers berating the board for allowing the teachers to work under an expired contract for three years. The district says the union’s demands would practically eliminate the district’s contingency fund.

Holland also lays some of the blame on Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.

“Governor Corbett decimated public education,” Holland said. “His polices are inexcusable and immoral. To have districts in this condition and to say there’s no income while the Marcellus shale companies get a free ride.”

Under state law, teachers may strike twice in one school year.

The first strike must end in time for students to get 180 school days in by June 15 or by the last day of the scheduled school year. If the first strike threatens that deadline, both sides must go into mandatory, non-binding arbitration. If a second strike is called after arbitration, it must end in time for students to get 180 school days by June 30.

If that deadline is in danger, the state Secretary of Education can request an injunction ordering the teachers back to work.

Districts are not allowed to bring in substitutes or “strikebreakers” who have not worked for the district in the last 12 months during a first strike, but may do so in a second strike in the same school year.

The Wyoming Area Education Association represents 160 teachers, librarians and guidance counselors.

Ferentino said the district is prepared for the strike. Administration will still work and extra-curricular activities, including football and cheerleading, will continue as normal.

In case of a strike, parents will be updated with the district’s auto-dial phone notification system and with regular updates on the district website, www.wyomingarea.org.

More than 60 teachers in the Old Forge School District are also unable to come to an agreement with the their school board and plan to strike on Tuesday as well.

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