In the strike zone


First Posted: 9/6/2013

The first week of the Wyoming Area teachers’ strike is complete and there is little sign of it letting up.

By state law, the teachers must return to class on Oct. 4, according to the state Department of Education.

Melissa Dolman, president of the Wyoming Area Education Association and an 8th grade reading teacher, said the school board needs to reach out.

“We’re not going back to the classroom until the contract settled or until the state forces us back,” Dolman said.

But Jack Dean, the chief negotiator for the district, said the school board has gone as far as it can go, and the union keeps moving the ball.

“They want to be called professionals, then they need to start acting like professions, not children,” Dean said.

Teachers have been working under the terms of an expired contract since August 2010. The union represents 160 teachers, librarians and guidance counselors.

The strike started Tuesday morning out in front of the Secondary Center in Exeter and Montgomery Avenue Elementary School in West Pittston, but members moved exclusively in front of the elementary school because it’s a high-traffic area on Wyoming Avenue and they have a better chance of getting their message out.

“We counted the cars at the secondary center and there were 12 cars going by in a day,” Dolman said. “We moved and now we’re getting lots of beeps, lots of honks of support.”

Teachers are picketing in two shifts from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 6:30 a.m. to noon on Friday.

Several other construction, electrical and pipe fitter union members working on a renovation project at the Montgomery Avenue school have ceased work at the school because they refused to cross the picket line. The roof project is continuing because those workers are not unionized, Dolman said.

She said members also picketed in front Wyoming Area School Board President John Bolin’s business, Flowers by Lucille, and in front of Board Member John Marianacci’s home. They said they targeted Bolin and Marianacci because the union supported both men in the most recent election.

Bolin didn’t flinch.

“They’re more than welcome to do that,” Bolin said on Friday. “They have every right to do that. It’s doesn’t bother me at all.”

Bolin questioned their “support” saying he has not received a single campaign contribution from the union. He said they may have sent out an email voicing their support for him, but there were no “monetary contributions.”

He said the district just doesn’t have the funds to meet their demands.

“The district can’t afford what they want,” Bolin said. “I would give it to them if I could. We just don’t have the funds. I can’t go to the school and plant a tree with Miracle Gro and have money sprout out of the ground.”

Dolman said of all board members, Marianacci should know better. He himself is in a union and his wife is a secretary in the Wyoming Area support staff union.

“She is still receiving all of her healthcare benefits and received a raise,” Dolman said. “It’s good for his wife, but it’s not good for us.”

Marianacci could not be reached for comment.

By state law, the strike can last until it endangers the district’s ability to complete 180 days of school by June 15, at which point the state would seek a court injunction forcing teachers to return to work. The exact date would be determined by the state, calculating how many holiday and vacation days could be used to make up for time lost to the strike.

The union can strike a second time, but that strike must end in time to complete 180 days by June 30.

A principal sticking point is pay, with a focus on what happens retroactively for the 2011-12 school year. The union charges the board is shuffling the same money around over the course of its proposed six-year contract, without offering any actual changes in salary raises during recent negotiations.

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

Chris Hizynski, a history teacher in the secondary center, called the strike a sacrifice.

“If my family and my school district is going to move forward and continue to improve the quality of life at my house and the quality of education at my school, certain sacrifices have to be made.”

He said nobody wants the teachers to strike but they were forced into it.

“There’s a very simple solution,” he said. “The board of education was elected for the purpose of keeping these schools open. If we’re standing out here, by definition, they have failed in their primary responsibility as a board member.”

The strike is headquartered at a teacher’s home across from the elementary school. The teachers relaxed on Friday afternoon and ate pizza and salad at lunchtime. Food is being donated by various groups, including the Pittston Area Education Association, Luzerne Intermediate Unit 18’s union and Vince Argenio Chiropractors.

Sitting down, Dolman said, seems to be the biggest challenge.

“The primary issue is still six years, no raise,” she said. “We don’t consider a step a raise. Step is years of service and educational credits and they don’t come for free. They give us a $100 credit reimbursement and classes range from $1,800 to $3,000. We have to get a master’s degree plus 60 credits to get to the top of that scale.”

Dolman said the lack of a paycheck will start to affect teachers, but a strike notice was given in May.

“It’s not as if it was unplanned,” Dolman said. “We knew that if things didn’t go anywhere, this is where we’d be. We were very honest from the start. We were telling people, save as much as you can to prepare for this.”

Dolman said the teachers will not picket the football game on Friday night.

”We won’t picket the football games,”she said. “The games are about the kids, not about us.”

She said the district students and parents have been very supportive, and some even stopped by and brought the teachers coffee and donuts. “A parent was walking the line with us the last two days.”

She said the union understands what parents are going through.

“We’re parents, too,” Doleman said. “We have children in the district. We’re frustrated too. But parents need to know they shouldn’t be directing their frustration here, they should be directing it at the school board who is not sitting down with us, is not trying to work this out.”

The teachers have been wearing T-shirts printed at Axelrad in Kingston and Argo’s in Exeter. The signs were printed at Jaworski Sign Co. in Scranton, a union shop.

Dean, the district negotiator, said he’s spoken to the state-appointed mediator, Jack Yanchulis, but not to anyone from the union.

“We’re always willing to meet,” Dean said. “We’ve offered to meet on weekends. The union rejected it. Members of the board have even taken vacation days from their jobs to meet.”

No new negotiation sessions have been set up as of press time.

“They haven’t contacted us,” Dolman said. “I was on the radio (Thursday) saying we’re willing to meet any time at any place. I’m out here on Wyoming Avenue on the picket line. They’re welcome to come here to find me.”

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