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Strike may not delay start of Leechburg school

| Friday, Aug. 17, 2007

School district officials are expected to decide early next week whether the support staff strike that began Thursday will affect the start of classes.

Superintendent Jim Budzilek said on Thursday that students likely will return to school Aug. 30 as planned, despite a discussion at Wednesday's school board meeting that classes could be pushed back.

"We do not anticipate this causing any delay to the start of school," Budzilek said.

Business Manager Richard Liberto said a definite decision would be made about a week before teachers are scheduled to return to the classroom on Aug. 27. Teachers have three in-service days before students are scheduled to return.

The Leechburg Education Support Personnel Association, a union that represents about 13 of the district's secretaries and teachers' aides, has worked without a contract since July 2006.

The union went on strike Thursday after the school board unanimously shot down a contract proposal on Wednesday.

Union President Amy Nulph questioned the district's tactics in threatening to delay school.

"ESP (education support personnel) is not supposed to be able to shut down school," she said.

When the union went on strike for two weeks in January, the district did not cancel classes. Instead, it hired temporary aides to assist in special education classrooms.

Classroom aides are not needed during the summer months, Liberto said. Only the union's secretaries would be working now.

Jim Smith, a regional field director with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the district was unprepared to start school because positions haven't been filled and classrooms aren't ready.

"School won't be delayed because my people are on strike," Smith said.

Budzilek and Liberto strongly objected to Smith's comments.

"It's absolutely, positively not true," Liberto said. "There's nothing holding us back (aside from the strike)."

Liberto said the only vacant position, for a guidance counselor, was filled at the beginning of August.

"Our classrooms are done, ready to go," he said.

"Our maintenance staff has done a fantastic job getting the school ready," Budzilek said.

Both sides said they are willing to work with a state mediator and hope to set some dates for negotiating sessions. None had been scheduled as of Thursday.

There are three major sticking points:

* Salary increases.

* Establishing a salary scale.

* Determining how much health insurance premiums can increase before union members are required to chip in.

Smith said the union expects the same health insurance terms offered in the teachers contract, which states the district will pay for health insurance unless the cost rises more than 12.5 percent. If a greater increase occurs, the contribution terms would be negotiated at that time, Smith said.

The support union also is asking for annual raises of 60 cents per hour. Union members are paid between $8 and $14 per hour.

The district says they can't afford both the salary increases and the health insurance terms proposed by the union. The district offered to cover health insurance costs up to a 6 percent increase, but the union turned it down.

"That is not acceptable," Smith said.

District officials said the cost of health care increased 11 percent for the upcoming school year.

The union also wants to establish a salary scale similar to those offered to the teachers and maintenance unions, but the district objected.

"We make nothing," Nulph said. "We're not being unreasonable. We're not an unreasonable group."

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