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House bill would let taxpayers see details of teachers' contracts

| Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, 9:02 p.m.

A proposal in the state House would enable taxpayers to learn the details of pending school district contracts with unions and other educators before local officials vote on them.

If House Bill 1741 becomes a law school boards would be required to give at least 48-hour notice before voting on a proposed collective-bargaining agreement with a union or a contract with professionals such as administrators, who would not be union members.

Under the version of the bill that passed the House Appropriations Committee entirely with Republican support in a split-party vote last month, boards would be obligated to publish a statement of the terms of the contract and the estimated cost to the district on the district's website and in a general circulation newspaper.

“Union members get to see (the contract) before they vote on it,” the bill's main sponsor, state Rep. Fred Keller, a Republican from Snyder County, said. “How can you argue against letting the information out to the people who are paying the bills?

“It's no different from what the state does with the general fund budget.”

Discussion about the bill in Harrisburg comes as Penn-Trafford officials are negotiating with the district's teachers union on a new labor contract because the existing five-year deal runs out this summer. The teachers contract in neighboring Gateway School District expired last summer.

School district officials across the region commonly cite the confidentiality of negotiations as the reason for not revealing many — if any — details about a pending contract before the night of a vote at a public meeting.

Penn-Trafford solicitor Michael Brungo said he is skeptical that a bill such as Keller's would become a law.

“I don't know that it would be beneficial to the district or the union,” said Brungo, whose firm represents several school districts. But state Rep. George Dunbar — a co-sponsor of the bill — cited the public outcry in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, where a recently re-elected school board member abruptly resigned during the same meeting in which his colleagues hired him for an unadvertised, newly created $120,000-per-year administrative job with a five-year contract.

Within three weeks of the appointment, Martin Michael Schmotzer resigned from the post and was sworn in for a new four-year school board term, and district officials abolished the position of supervisor of special projects for the board.

“I think this type of legislation can prevent that type of thing from happening in the future,” said Dunbar, a Penn Township Republican.

Democrats such as Deberah Kula, whose 52nd Legislative District includes parts of Westmoreland and Fayette counties, said she wonders if publicizing the proposed terms before a vote could make some negotiations more contentious.

“This could totally throw all of this into chaos and have the process go on longer,” said Kula, who opposed the bill during the Dec. 16 committee vote.

Associations representing union members, administrators and school boards also criticize the bill, though for different reasons.

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said the teachers union thinks collective bargaining agreements should be negotiated in good faith between the school board and the union members.

“School board directors are elected to serve the taxpayers; they're not elected to turn over the decision-making to the taxpayers,” Keever said.

Shaun Rinier, president of Penn-Trafford teachers union, said he thinks the bill is “ridiculous” and pointed out that taxpayers don't have the opportunity to review state legislators' salaries or benefits or the size of their staffs.

“The legislators are beating their chests on this, and there are a lot of people who think we make too much money, but this isn't the way to go,” he said.

Though officials for both the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, or PASA, and Pennsylvania School Boards Association, or PSBA, are quick to say they think transparency in negotiations is important, they question how costly it will be for districts to advertise for every pending contract.

Describing the bill as a “significant, unfunded mandate,” PASA executive director Jim Buckheit said even relatively small ads can cost districts between $2,500 and $6,000 each. In a large district, such as the Pittsburgh Public Schools, that could be “dozens and dozens of contracts” during a fiscal year, he said.

Buckheit also noted the bill doesn't apply to other entities such as charter and cyber-charter schools, though 89 charter-school CEOs earned more than $100,000 in 2012-13.

Keller, the bill's prime sponsor, dismissed the criticisms about the bill not covering charter schools.

“We can ‘what-if' everything and get nowhere, but let's start somewhere,” he said.

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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