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Shaler teachers call strike 'last resort'

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By Megan Harris
Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, 11:48 p.m.

Striking teachers at Shaler Area School District won't disclose the state of negotiations, maintaining their workforce is underpaid with too large a burden placed on health care insurance premiums.

“We've been at this for two years now,” Shaler teachers union President Melissa Ravas said. “Our position won't change or go away just because we're striking now. For us, this was a last resort.”

About 380 teachers went on strike Tuesday, which would have been the district's first day of classes.

District officials have argued that teachers' average salary — among the lowest in Allegheny County at $56,362 — was a result of the younger, less-experienced employees that replaced more than 300 retirees in the last 15 years.

Superintendent Wes Shipley said about 43 percent of the teaching staff has less than 10 years of classroom experience, though state records show Shaler teachers have an average of 13.3 years of experience. That includes an average of 12 years in Shaler Area schools.

In Allegheny County, teachers have an average of 12.9 years of experience, of which 11.6 years were spent in their current district. The average teacher salary in Allegheny County is $65,342.

In 2011, the median per capita income for a single person in Shaler Township was $30,837. The median family income with two or more earners was $65,851.

In August, negotiators urged Ravas and union leaders to agree to a salary and step freeze in the first year of any agreement. District officials proposed a step movement in the following years and salary increases to the lowest 10 steps and the highest step. The union rejected a step freeze and asked for a1.1 percent increase to all base salaries.

Shaler Area employees move through salary steps, which include pay increases, each year based on teaching experience and education.

District officials want teachers to pay a higher percentage — at least 15 percent, depending on the plan — of their health care premiums. The union tentatively agreed to an increase, though not 15 percent. Shipley said the two sides made progress on the health care issues during a three-hour negotiating session Wednesday night, but remain at a stalemate over salaries.

Shaler Area teachers now pay a monthly fee of $20 per individual and $40 per family HMO with the option for PPO.

A 2013 Employer Health Benefits Survey by the Kaiser Wellness Foundation found the national average for single employee health care contributions is 18 percent, above the district's offer.

Though neither side would detail their latest offers, Shipley said the district could not afford an across-the-board pay increase.

Jane Fisher, PTO vice president at Shaler Area Middle School, said her organization asked teachers and district officials last winter to open negotiations to the public. They didn't receive a response.

“We don't know what's been offered or what's been turned down,” Fisher said. “We don't know anything more than we knew when they decided to strike in June.”

The district pays retirement benefits worth $10,000 to $15,000 a year for each of the approximately 150 newly retired teachers under the age of 65.

“We were faced with rising costs and declining enrollment with an aging workforce worth $86,000 or more per teacher,” said Charlie Bennett, Shaler's director of business affairs. “By offering retirement incentives, we have to pay that health care premium, but we save a lot hiring entry-level teachers at around $40,000 a year.”

Shaler Area enrollment stands at about 4,650, about 1,000 fewer students than in 2000-01.

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or Staff writers Bethany Hofstetter and Daveen Rae Kurutz contributed.

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