Is strike looming at Wyo. Area?
Last Modified: February 27. 2013 11:59PM
EXETER — A full-page newspaper ad placed by a teachers union, a school board response on the school district's website, a sharp-tongued debate at a public board meeting … . Could Wyoming Area teachers be on the verge of a strike?
“Let's just say time is running out,” union lead negotiator John Holland said Wednesday.
The union contract expired Aug. 31, 2010, with negotiations beginning — by state law — six months earlier. For much of the time since, talks stayed largely under the public radar.
That ended Sunday when the union took out a full-page advertisement in an area newspaper, contending the school board “has rejected several state mediator settlement proposals” and a state fact-finder proposal, while the union has “offered cost-saving solutions to help with salary and health care.”
The ad listed high academic achievements for the district and stated, “the average teacher salary at Wyoming Area is 13 percent lower than the state average.”
The school board countered by posting a “Teacher contract update” on the district's website, claiming the teachers “have rejected a fair deal,” that the board rejected only one mediator proposal because it had a $400,000 salary error, which was also in the fact-finder report, and that the teacher proposal would raise salaries 19 percent and cost district taxpayers more than $1.7 million.
At Tuesday's board meeting tensions boiled to the surface with verbal sparring between union president Melissa Dolman and board member Frank Casarella, who sits on the negotiating team.
The dust-up followed news last Friday that former union president Lisa Barrett had resigned without explanation and requested a medical leave from her teaching position, which in turn came the same day Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said her office will look into alleged misuse of money, reportedly with a union credit card.
On Wednesday, Holland said the union had opted for the full-page ad because “three years is a long time to negotiate and not make any headway.” Attorney John Dean, the district's lead negotiator, said the web post was done because “we want to make sure both sides of the story are out there.”
Here's how “both sides” boil down.
Mediator proposal: The union contends the board rejected “several” proposals from the state mediator involved in negotiations. Dean said he checked his notes and could find only one such proposal. Holland said he believes there were multiple proposals but conceded he would have to check his notes to be sure.
Fact-finder proposal: Holland argued that the board asked to go through fact-finding, which brings in a third party to compare both offers and craft a compromise, then rejected the proposal. Dean noted either side can propose fact-finding and the board did so in 2011, but that the fact-finder worked with a base salary for all teachers that was “off by $400,000.” Holland rejected that claim, and noted the data would have come from the district.
Teacher raises: Dean said the union received a raise in 2010-11 because school started before the contract expired, which means a 2.5 percent increase built into the contract “step” system — annual pay increases for all but teachers at the top of the pay scale — applied. Holland rejects defining that as a raise, noting it was part of a longstanding salary “matrix” carried over from contract to contract, something all area school districts have.
Health insurance: Dean said the union's proposal eliminated an already small deductible of $100 for individuals and $300 per family, and no premium sharing. The board had proposed increasing the deductible to $250/$500, and having teachers pay the lesser of 1.5 percent of salary or 5 percent of the premium. Holland, who has long opposed premium sharing in any contract negotiations, said the union offered alternative insurance savings the board rejected.
Holland noted the board offered a four-year contract from August 2010 through August 2014, meaning negotiations on a new contract would have to begin in about 10 months. “We're not going to settle a contract and start all over again.”
The union proposed a six-year contract that the board contends would add up to an almost 19 percent increase in raises, a claim Holland rejected, though he didn't have specific numbers of his own. Holland also rejected the board's claim that its four-year offer included a 6 percent raise, noting the offer was for retroactive increases followed by a pay freeze.
And while Dean said the union's claim about a low average salary was misleading because the district is heavy with new teachers at the bottom end of the pay scale, Holland defended it. “It's a factual statement,” he said. “We can debate it, but it's an accurate statement.”
According to state data from 2010-11, the latest available, the average salary for professional personnel at Wyoming Area was $56,548 — the third lowest among Luzerne County's 11 districts. But Wyoming Area also has the second lowest average years of service, 11.4.
The union ad also boasted that all district teachers are “highly qualified” according to the state Department of Education, but critics contend the bar is low: hold at least a bachelor's degree, hold a valid state teaching certificate and demonstrate subject matter competency — usually by passing tests required to obtain a teaching certificate.
Holland has a policy of not discussing union strategy, and he stuck to it Wednesday beyond saying time was running out for a deal.
But the recent activity mirrors union actions in other negotiations that often, though not always, preceded strikes: Increased teacher informational pickhets, increased teacher public comments at board meetings and increased union effort to publicize its side of the story.