Teachers across Allegheny County lack contracts
Teachers in seven school districts across Allegheny County are working without contracts and while some districts say negotiations have been amicable and are close to producing a deal, others report little progress and say they moving closer to a strike.
Teachers in Bethel Park, Duquesne, East Allegheny, Hampton, Pine-Richland, Shaler and South Allegheny are working under the terms of expired contracts, with salary and benefits among the chief issues, union leaders said.
Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Butch Santicola, whose group represents all of the bargaining units except Bethel Park, said decreased money to school districts and a slow economy are contributing to the number of bargaining units without contracts. All of the districts are in negotiations, he said.
“Prior to the gubernatorial election and the economic downturn this would be a lot,” Santicola said. “In the recent past, no.”
Negotiations in Shaler Area appear to be among the most contentious. Members of the teachers union this week authorized their leaders to call a strike. The union would have to give the district 48-hours' notice of a walkout.
Shaler teachers have been without a contract since Aug. 15, 2011. Union and district officials have been meeting since January 2011.
Melissa Ravas, president of the 380-member teachers union, criticized school board President Jim Giel in a new release this week, saying he and the board have “disrespected” the teachers.
“We remain willing to do our part, but the board is not willing to do its part. Jim Giel wants the teachers to do all the heavy lifting so that he can stall the bargain process and attempt to make us look bad,” Ravas said.
Giel said he's only one of nine board members.
“Seventy percent of the taxpayers in the district don't have kids in school. I have a lot of senior citizens that don't want to lose their homes. That fear is always there,” he said.
The Bethel Park teachers union went on strike for six weeks in fall 2010 and is still without a contract.
“We continue to meet with the state-appointed mediator, and we're trying to solve problems with the district,” said Walt Michalski, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers of Pennsylvania, which represents Bethel Park teachers. “This year, we're still committed to resolving this at the table.”
Michalski said sticking points are class sizes, prep time, salary and health care, and teaching additional classes.
Michalski put some blame on Gov. Tom Corbett's budget, which he said cut money for education.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, disputed that money has been cut.
In the 2010-11 state budget, which was Gov. Ed Rendell's final budget, support of public schools totaled $8.56 billion. Under Corbett, support for public schools increased to $9.09 billion in 2011-12 and to $9.48 billion for 2012-13, Eller said.
Other districts expressed optimism that they could reach a deal without threatening a strike.
“We're getting close. We had a meeting Monday and another one is scheduled next week,” said Kim Piekut, president of the South Allegheny Education Association, whose contract expired in June. “I'm cautiously optimistic. It's been going fairly well. The teachers realize the economic crisis we're all in.”
In East Allegheny School District, 131 teachers have been without a contract since June. The school board has twice rejected a state-appointed fact finder's contract recommendation.
Despite that, union President Lou Gerbi said teachers have not taken a strike authorization vote and are continuing to work under the terms of the old deal.
“We're both working through some things. Salary and benefits of course are issues,” Gerbi said.
Hampton teachers have been without a contract since June. Hampton school board President David Gurwin said negotiators met earlier this week and another session is scheduled next month.
“I'm optimistic we're going to reach a deal,” Gurwin said. “I think we all recognize we're in a different economic environment. The rules are changed a bit with the state law that limits millage increases. Coupled with increased health care expenses, it's almost a perfect storm.”
Pine-Richland teachers' contract expired at the end of June. Negotiations are ongoing, but the sides have decided not to discuss the issues publicly, according to Dr. Jeffrey Banyas, school board vice president.
“The discussions have been amicable,” he said. “(Decreased funding) is something that gets factored into budget decisions. Obviously, the budget has an impact on negotiations. We're trying to deal with the reality we're dealt with.”
Duquesne teachers this fall authorized their leaders to call a strike, Santicola said, but they have not walked off the job. Susan Sherman, president of the Duquesne teachers union, said the union wants to work with the state's appointed recovery officer, Paul Long, who is tasked with devising a financial recovery plan for the cash-strapped district.
“We have no intentions of walking off the job. We're waiting out the process to see what Dr. Long has in store,” Sherman said. “Our priority is the children.”
Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or firstname.lastname@example.org.