Both sides reportedly frustrated with Steel Valley teacher talks

| Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012

If negotiations do not progress between Steel Valley School District and its teachers, the teachers union could take a strike authorization vote by the end of the month.

That vote only would give the bargaining unit authorization to strike on the teachers' behalf and not mean an immediate strike, officials explained. The last Steel Valley teachers contract expired Aug. 22, 2011.

"We're coming together at the end of the month to possibly take a strike authorization vote," Steel Valley Education Association president Kevin Tomasic said. "We don't want to do this, but they are giving us no other option. This is the last thing we want to do. We want a contract."

"Both parties are still trying to reach an agreement," Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Butch Santicola said. "They are still bargaining. Frustration is starting to set in."

Tomasic said negotiations have been ongoing for 18 months. He said the teachers union tried to approach the school district to start contract talks in August 2010 and wanted to negotiate without attorneys.

"They told us they'd see us in January with their lawyer," he said. "We gave them a proposal in January 2011 and we received the counter at end of April 2011."

Tomasic said teachers received furlough notices in the mail a few days later after the counter proposal.

"PSEA never uses a lawyer," said William Andrews, the attorney representing the school district in negotiations. "But they have full-time Uniserv professionals trained in negotiations. School districts have no such trained individuals."

Tomasic said the teachers union was going to negotiate without PSEA Uniserv professionals as it has done in the past. While PSEA is now involved in negotiations, Tomasic said PSEA hasn't been used in many of the past contracts.

Tomasic said the proposal the union received in April didn't have financial numbers due to Gov. Tom Corbett's state budget.

"We gave them counter in August 2011," he said. "We didn't hear from them until December and it wasn't a written proposal."

Tomasic said school district representatives gave the union a copy of the proposed budget for the upcoming school year and went through the proposal the union gave the school district in August.

"They said they stand by their original proposal," he said.

"It's not that Steel Valley doesn't want to come to early settlement," Andrews said. "It's the economic realities of the situation today. You have the governors' budget and funding being reduced substantially. In the Steel Valley School District, there were questions of whether they will make it through the year. They don't have a fund balance and they're in a hole."

He said the school district has to deal with Act 1, which limits the amount the school district can raise taxes.

"They are limited of what they can do," Andrews said. "They could put a referendum on the ballot to question the voters if they want to raise taxes to pay teachers. We mentioned it to the union. They didn't seem to think it was a good idea."

Tomasic said he doesn't remember that coming up.

Andrews said Steel Valley, like all school districts in Allegheny County, is dealing with the reassessment issues.

"When reassessment comes into play, the total assessment will go down from what it was," he said. "If the assessments go down and the governor is giving you less money, it's a perfect storm. Nobody has any idea how much money is going to be available from year to year in Steel Valley."

Andrews said he agrees that there was no written offer to the teachers union in December.

"We said we will offer you a freeze for first and second year of contract," Andrews said. "All other provisions would remain in place. Do you need it in writing to figure out what that is?"

"He's a lawyer and he should know things need to be in writing," Tomasic said.

He said the teachers union has adjusted its original offer and the district has yet to adjust the one it gave in April.

"We're working status quo on the old contract," Tomasic said. "We've met face-to-face in contract four times. The teachers want this settled. That's what is happening and that's where we're at. It's been frustrating with furloughs."

There were 40 Steel Valley teachers furloughed in May and approximately half were brought back in the same or a lesser capacity. District officials said the teacher furloughs were due to declining enrollment.

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