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Books still open on teacher talks

| Saturday, Aug. 28, 2004

Fourteen months after their contract expired and nearly two years after negotiations started, South Butler County School District teachers still don't have a deal.

They rejected the district's latest proposal Thursday night, triggering talk of a potential strike.

"That is not what we are thinking, but we have been negotiating for 20 months without any real progress," said Dawn Heilman, a high school chemistry teacher and the union's chief negotiator.

Six districts in Allegheny County still lack contracts.

"Any one of these situations could become critical in a minute if negotiations get nasty," said Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. The association is the state affiliate for many local unions.

Districts still without teacher contracts include Avonworth, Pine-Richland, South Fayette, McKeesport, Chartiers Valley and the Parkway West Vocational Technical High School.

Pine-Richland's situation is the most precarious, Santicola said.

It is the only Allegheny County district where teachers have authorized their representatives to call a strike. Negotiations started in November. The stumbling blocks are salary and benefits, officials said. Pine-Richland employs about 290 teachers and has 4,000 students.

Elsewhere, the key issues are salaries and health care, Santicola said.

"The next two weeks will be critical weeks for bargaining," Santicola said. "It is always critical when school opens."

District representatives at Avonworth, Chartiers Valley and Avonworth say there's little chance of strikes there.

"Everyone is excited to be back at school," said Erin Emch, a district spokeswoman for Avonworth, where the teachers' five-year teacher contract expired June 30.

Teachers at Chartiers Valley have agreed to work under terms of the five-year deal that expired June 30, said district spokesman Chuck McCartney.

In South Fayette, where school starts Sept. 13, teachers are almost certain to start school without a contract, officials said. Teachers have said they will not strike at the start of the school year,

"Talks have been positive and are not adversarial," said Superintendent Linda Hippert.

It's a different story in South Butler.

School Solicitor Tom King said the district's latest contract offer was "eminently reasonable."

Heilman disagreed.

"This contract falls short on salary, compared to neighboring districts, and we would be the first district in Butler County where teachers contribute to health care," she said. "This would be a regressive contract."

Starting South Butler County teachers now earn $28,350 a year. Teachers at the top of the pay scale earn $63,353.

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