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Rising tensions in Penn Hills forestall contract deal

Tony LaRussa
| Thursday, March 11, 2010

Acrimony between the Penn Hills school board and its teachers union is beginning to overshadow labor negotiations that have failed to yield any substantial progress.

The union has accused the board of wasteful spending and poor leadership on fliers and social networking sites. The district derided the union on a roadside electronic billboard, prompting an apology.

On Monday, teachers and their supporters attended the regular board meeting to reiterate their criticisms. Board President Joseph Bailey says the teachers are trying to divert attention from salary and benefits demands that are exorbitant.

"These things are all illusions. They're a smokescreen," said board President Joseph Bailey. "What residents tell me, and what the board feels, is that while we truly support our teachers and value their work, what they're asking for is unfair and not in the best interest of this community."

Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the union, questioned how failing to attract and retain good teachers by paying a competitive salary and benefits is going to improve the quality of education in Penn Hills.

"This district is just jumping on the bandwagon of saying let's cut, cut, cut until there's nothing left and everybody's at the bottom," he said. "Is this supposed to make the community an attractive place to live?"

The 415 teachers represented by the union have been working under the terms of a contract that expired Aug. 31. They went on strike for four days last month.

At Monday's board meeting, science teacher Kelly Shiring said the district's message is for "established, effective, good teachers to run, run as fast and far from this district as you can."

Teachers say the planned layoffs of as many as 80 teachers will increase class size and further reduce student achievement. The district contends the layoffs are necessary, the result of losing 561 students since 2008.

The district's latest offer, rejected by teachers last week, was a five-year deal with a wage freeze in the first year, a 3.25 percent raise in the second, a 3.5 percent raise in the third, and 3 percent raises in the fourth and fifth. According to the state Department of Education, Penn Hills teachers earned an average of $48,817 during the 2007-08 school year. The average teacher's salary in Allegheny County that year was $52,035 and the statewide average was $56,091.

By the end of the contract, teachers would be paying 7 percent toward the cost of medical insurance. The average public employee in Pennsylvania pays 8.3 percent for health insurance. Private-sector workers pay an average of 23.9 percent.

Teachers want a five-year contract with raises of about 6 percent a year. They want to keep paying 1.2 percent of their salaries toward health insurance, and cut the amount to 0.4 percent for teachers who do not cover spouses and families. They want coverage for domestic partners and insurance from the time they retire until they are eligible for Medicare.

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