Wyoming Area strike notice leaves room for give, take

June 27th, 2015 1:17 am

First Posted: 6/21/2013

Wyoming Area School District teachers have set a strike date of Sept. 3, but gave the school board official notice at Tuesday’s monthly work session, a full 75 days more than the minimum 48-hour notice required by state law.

The long lead time is designed to encourage a break in stalled negotiations, union president Melissa Dolman said. “That’s always the hope. That’s why we decided to give them notice at this time.”

The latest contract expired in the summer of 2010 and teachers have worked under the terms of that expired contract since. The two sides have been negotiating since January of that year. “The members are pretty disgusted with the School Board,” union lead negotiator John Holland said earlier Tuesday. “We’re going into the fourth year of talks and the teachers don’t believe we are making any progress.

Dolman said the board seems to come back with pretty much the same offer every time recently, adding that little has changed since terms of each side’s offer were released in a public dust-up in February. That’s when the union took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper and the board responded with a posting on the district website.

At the time, the board offered a four-year contract running from August 2010 through August 2014 with a retroactive pay increase followed by a freeze and teachers contributing toward their health insurance premiums. The union’s latest offer was a six-year contract with raises every year and no premium sharing, but Holland said at the time that the union had proposed other moves that would produce health insurance savings.

If the strike occurs, it would start after three days of classes for students, Dolman noted.

Under state law, teachers may strike twice in one school year. The first strike must end in time for students to have 180 school days by June 15. If the first strike threatens that deadline, both sides must go into mandatory, non-binding arbitration. That trigger is one tactical reason unions may schedule a strike in September: There can still be enough time after the arbitration for a second strike.

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 threatened, the state secretary of education can seek a court 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.

Holland, the regional director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, generally does not discuss negotiation or strike tactics. “When we go on strike we always decide according to events and what’s going on,” he noted, then added, “There is a potential here that it could be a lengthy strike.”

Dolman read the strike notice during public comment at the work session and handed a written strike notice to Superintendent Raymond Bernardi.

Explaining the decision, Dolman said teachers began informational picketing earlier in the year “to educate the public on the current teacher situation. In return, the board ignored it. We attempted a general ad campaign that highlighted Wyoming Area’s performance and, in return, the board used the school website in a demeaning way to disparage teachers.”

Dolman said Wyoming Area is one of the highest-performing school districts, “yet our teachers are among the lowest compensated in the state. What message does that send? Are we to take from the board’s actions that hard work is to be punished and dedication is to be ignored?”

Board solicitor Jarrett Ferentino said the board is not ignoring the teachers. He said the board has asked for informal discussions, and the union has refused.

“What we cannot ignore … are the unique challenges that face this district, not the least of which was a natural disaster, substantial cuts in the state budget and a teachers contract that we want to reach that is fair,” Ferrentino said.

He said the board offered a 12-percent pay increase in its last offer, informally agreed to a six-year contract and asked for concessions with sharing of health insurance premiums — “a flat, nominal fee that is fair and comparable to any district doing that.”

The offer was to have the teachers pay $35 toward their health insurance every two weeks — a good offer, Ferrentino said, and better than a percentage contribution because health care premiums might increase substantially when the federal Affordable Care Act goes into full effect, he said.

Dolman said no other adjacent school district has premium sharing. And in exchange for not having to share premium costs, teachers offered to save the district $300,000 by switching insurance plans and another lowering the cap on reimbursement for declining health insurance from 50 percent of the district’s savings to 25 percent.

Dolman doesn’t disagree that the board is offering a 12-percent raise, but she said that raise was already negotiated eight years ago and built into the current contract in the form of steps — higher pay levels for increasing degrees of continuing education credits and graduate degrees.

“So it’s not an additional raise. And on top of that, when you ask us for more concessions, in the end, it ends up that you are asking the teachers to take a pay cut over the next six years. And I don’t think that anyone in this room is going to sign up for a six-year pay cut,” she said.

Ferrentino said the intention of the board is “to meet anytime, anywhere, with lawyers or without lawyers, to continue this discussion.”

Dolman asked if it would be fruitful, given the board’s “unwillingness to budge.”

Ferrentino said in previous negotiating sessions, “we slid offers across the table.” Sessions the board is proposing would involve “crunching numbers” and “showing each other on paper how it would work. It’s a markedly different approach. … What we’re talking about doing wouldn’t be one-sided.”

Dolman said union representatives will “meet as often as we need to.”