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Homer-Center, teachers approve new labor pact

Jeff Himler
| Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

Homer-Center School District and its teachers' union have approved an “early-bird” contract that sets forth guidelines for faculty members' wages and benefits over three years, beginning Aug. 31 of this year.

The labor agreement maintains a formula hammered out in the previous contract that ties annual pay hikes to Homer-Center's basic education subsidy and to limits on its ability to raise property taxes — both factors determined by state officials. The new contract also calls for a switch to a new medical plan that is expected to save money for teachers as well as the district.

The new contract was approved by the school board 8-0 on Jan. 23 with school director Dan Fabin absent. President Lisa Adams said members of the Homer-Center Education Association ratified the agreement by a “landslide vote” of 50-6 in December.

Adams and school board members remarked on the steady progress of negotiations, which began in August, and the early approval of the resulting agreement as a marked and welcome contrast to past labor talks.

“We are very pleased to have the early-bird agreement,” said school board President Vicki Smith. “We're really pleased to have the continuity and stability going into the next three years.”

“Everybody gave a little, and everyone got a little” during the talks, she noted, adding that the negotiations resulted in “an outcome we can all be pleased with.”

A veteran board member, Smith remarked that in the past she's “been through some negotiations that were pure torture and lasted many more months than necessary.”

Board Vice President Gerald Bertig pointed out that district and union representatives completed negotiations “without outside involvement. I think that's very good in it's own way. That saved a lot of resources of time and money that we can all now deploy in positive ways for the education of our students.”

Adams credited the involvement of district superintendent Charles Koren and business manager Greg Cessna with helping the talks proceed smoothly. “It was an adult conversation and it was very, very productive,” she said.

Under the new contract, specific wage increases for teachers in each of the three years have yet to be determined. Though they will not be lower than a baseline of 2 percent each year, the pay hikes could be as high as a 4 percent ceiling in a given year. The actual percentage of the annual wage hike is to be determined as an average of the increase in the district's basic education subsidy — as yet unknown for the coming 2014-15 school year — and the annual Act 1 tax index, which is set at 3 percent for Homer-Center for 2014-15.

The contract establishes an added salary column for newly hired teachers who are employed as temporary professional employees, with lesser pay levels than those for new teachers with bachelor's degrees.

It also calls for teachers to work for 185 days each school year, reflecting an increase of one day from the terms of the current contract.

In January 2015, the union members will select a new qualified high-deductible health care plan tied to a health savings account, where money will be set aside for each teacher to use toward eligible health-related expenses. The district will make a contribution into the health savings account equaling 72 percent of the deductible — set at $1,500 for individual coverage and $2,500 for a family plan.

According to Adams, the new medical plan is expected to save the teachers money. Likewise, Cessna estimated that the district would save about $60,000 under the first year of the plan.

The new teacher contract provides each union member three personal days and 10 sick days per year. Language also has been updated to reflect use of e-mails to notify members of vacant positions at the district while an attendance software program will be used to keep teachers informed of accumulated sick and personal days. Retirement incentives in the current contract will expire at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

The school board authorized display of a proposed preliminary budget for the 2014-15 school year, noting it will consider adoption of the early spending plan at its Feb. 13 meeting.

Made available for review on Jan. 24, the proposed budget calls for estimated expenditures of $15,692,926 with the district fund balance, revenues and other financing sources available for appropriation estimated at $18,058,234.

The preliminary budget process takes place before final figures have been determined for state funding the district will receive in 2014-15. A final version of the district budget should be approved in June.

The district's state-determined Act 1 index of 3 percent sets a limit on the amount Homer-Center can add to its property tax millage for 2014-15 without obtaining approval from state officials, or through a local referendum vote.

Under the index, the district could increase its real estate levy from the current 125.6 mills to more than 129 mills. But the school board authorized Cessna to seek exceptions from state officials, based on district costs for retiree benefits and special education services, that would allow Homer-Center to potentially increase the tax by up to an additional 7 mills.

Cessna indicated there is no expectation the district will need to raise taxes by that amount; the exceptions are sought to give the district added flexibility in budgeting.

The school board accepted a grant of $6,800 from the Highmark Foundation for a project dubbed “Save Your Brain: Indiana County Concussion Awareness Initiative.”

The project was developed by instructors Bob Piccirillo, at Indiana County Technology Center, and Homer-Center's Matt Rodkey, who also is the district's track coach, assistant football coach and dean of students.

According to Koren, the initiative calls for Homer-Center students who attend classes at the technology center by the end of the current school year to create “three different grade level-appropriate videos to help provide students an understanding of concussions and the transition back to school.”

The videos are to be posted on You Tube and School Tube, Koren said, adding that the project will include training for local concussion management teams and video and printed materials that will be shared with schools across the county.

Though the school board took no formal action as of yet, it was noted that Homer-Center is cooperating with other local school districts that are members of ICTC in applying for a federal Department of Labor grant of up to $3.1 million to help develop a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) academy at the ICTC site outside of Indiana.

Smith noted only one other school in Pennsylvania aside from ICTC is currently in the running for funding available through the Youth and Career Connect grant program. If the STEM academy comes to fruition, the “possibilities are endless” for local students, she said.

According to district officials, one STEM pathway option would allow students who enroll in an eligible course of study to transition from the ICTC academy to a partnering post-secondary school in order to earn an associate degree and certificate.

If the grant is approved, the Homer-Center board will consider a motion to formally accept the funding and authorize the district's participation.

The school board approved March 17 as an instructional day to make up for cancellation of classes on Jan. 7 due to winter weather.

In personnel matters, the board employed Danielle Geisel and Heather Klingensmith as instructional aides retroactive to Jan. 2. Each will receive a starting salary of $8 per hour.

Pending appropriate clearances, Robert Stossel and Aaron Stultz were approved as volunteer baseball coaches while Bethany Cheek and Steven Hensley were approved as band volunteers.

The board approved several upcoming student trips with some questioning the amount the district will spend to send Homer-Center's indoor percussion group and its director Jon Stolarz to a series of competitive events through April and to send students to the FBLA State Leadership Conference April 7-9 in Hershey. The costs for the respective items were set at $3,750 and $3,245.

High School Principal Jody Rainey explained the percussion group must attend six initial events, as far away as Tyrone and St. Mary's, in order to qualify for a final event April 30 to May 4 in Wildwood, N.J. It was noted that band parents may pay for the New Jersey trip.

Rainey reported that four students — Morgan Smith, Madison Smith, Michael Sweeney and Courtney Kundla — qualified to attend the FBLA event after scoring wins at a regional competition. Koren noted the district bill for the event includes $405 per person for lodging at the Hershey  Lodge and Convention Center, including adviser Beverly Pribicko. There was a suggestion of considering less expensive accommodations in future years.

Other trips that were approved include:

• Joy Wilson and a student to attend the Regional Chorus Festival Feb. 13-14 at Girard High School at a cost of $349.50;

• Christine Yurky and students to attend the History Bowl State Championships and History Bee Feb. 15 in Lancaster at a cost of $85;

• Joshua Tobin and students to attend a Kiwanis Youth Leadership Workshop March 26 at the Indiana Country Club.

Sarah DeVivo will accompany district students on two trips — taking Homer-Center's team to a taping of the Hometown High Q quiz show Feb. 27 at the KDKA-TV studio in Pittsburgh; and taking students to the History Day Regional Competition April 4 at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, at a cost of $70.

The district granted permission for the Evergreen Boys and Girls Club of Indiana County to use the elementary cafetorium for a Family Night event for families of participants in the afterschool program. All normal fees for use of district facilities have been waived.

James J. Wagner, recently hired as the new executive director of the Armstrong- Indiana Intermediate Unit, attended the meeting to introduce himself to school officials.

Wagner noted ARIN is the fifth intermediate unit with which he's worked. He previously served as director of special education for a unit covering Elk, Potter and McKean counties.

Before accepting the ARIN position, Wagner already had ties to the area. He noted his daughter and her family reside in Indiana.

He noted ARIN offers 52 programs for the benefit of area districts and their residents — including adult education, homeless youth services and teacher effectiveness.

Homer-Center contributes about $31,000 toward ARIN's annual general operating budget.

Rainey and Elementary Principal Michael Stofa reported that their respective schools raised $3,400 and $5,644 to donate to Renda Broadcasting's annual Teddy Bear Fund Drive. The charitable effort benefits Children's Hospital and Indiana Regional Medical Center's pediatrics unit.

Elementary students Marlee Kochman and Kennidy Page advanced to the district finals of the Elks Hoop Shoot competition, held at Homer-Center.

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or

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