Last updated: April 12. 2014 2:38PM - 5128 Views
By Joe Healey jhealey@civitasmedia.com

Teachers from Wyoming Area School District walk the picket line Tuesday Sept. 3, 2013, outside Montgomery Avenue Elementary School on the first day of the strike. A neutral arbitrator has ruled in favor of the teachers union on Tuesday.
Teachers from Wyoming Area School District walk the picket line Tuesday Sept. 3, 2013, outside Montgomery Avenue Elementary School on the first day of the strike. A neutral arbitrator has ruled in favor of the teachers union on Tuesday.
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A neutral arbitrator ruled in favor of the Wyoming Area teachers union on Tuesday, according the union’s president.

The Wyoming Area Education Association immediately met and voted unanimously to accept the arbitrator’s ruling, but the Wyoming Area School Board will likely reject it.

“We’re very, very pleased,” said Wyoming Area Education Association President Melissa Dolman. “It is my hope the school board will accept the proposal and we can put this to rest and move on. Four years is a long time.”

Unionized teachers called a strike in September and walked out of the classroom after only three days of school. The teachers returned on Oct. 4 when they were required to by law and have been working under terms of an expired contract since August 2010.

Salary, health care and health care opt-outs are the primary sticking points.

Attorney Jack Dean, the lead negotiator for the district, said he was only able to skim through the ruling, but from what he saw, he would recommend the district reject the ruling.

“It’s financially untenable,” he said, adding that the district would have to raise taxes each year above the state-allowed index to afford the teachers’ proposal.

“It didn’t appear to me that he took into consideration the financial impact the association’s proposal will have on the district,” Dean said. “We went as far as we could go and brought our fund balance to zero.”

He said there would be a $2 million to $3 million deficit if the taxes are raised to the index. The index is generally between 1.9 and 2.2 percent, he said.

The district and union were in a processes called mandatory non-binding arbitration and both submitted their last, best offers back in November as part of the process. A neutral arbitrator, Ralph Colflesh of the American Arbitration Association, reviewed those offers and made the union recommendation Tuesday.

Both sides have 10 days to accept or reject the union’s plan. The union accepted it Tuesday afternoon.

Chief union negotiator John Holland hailed Colflesh’s decision and called the union’s proposal “reasonable, fair and affordable.”

“I’m quite tired of the district saying it will go broke,” Holland said. “When they say they can’t afford our plan, that’s totally misleading. The board needs to quit playing politics.”

If either side rejects Colflesh’s decision, the parties can continue negotiating. A second strike is essentially off the table because snow days must me made up in time for school to be over by June 30. Another strike could begin next school year.

Board President Estelle Campenni said she directed Superintendent Janet Serino to schedule a meeting with the board, Business Manager Tom Melone and Dean to discuss the matter. In an emailed response, she highlighted the lackluster support of the union by the arbitrator.

“I am quite surprised and disappointed in the arbitrator’s decision, particularly given the closing paragraph of the arbitrator’s response,” she wrote.

The closing paragraph of the report stated:

“Having found the District’s proposal worse than the Association’s, I unenthusiastically award the Association’s package. This is not to criticize either party or their able representatives. In “baseball arbitration” each side makes its best pitch, hoping the other side’s will be worse. It is the game the legislature has imposed on us in the absence of a rational and definitive method to resolve labor disputes in the public schools. Districts, employee representatives, and taxpayers deserve better.”

The current starting salary for a Wyoming Area teacher is $32,200 and the highest paid teacher on the top step earns almost $80,000.

The district proposed a 5-year contract. For 2010-2011, the district proposed step movement only, a 2.5 percent increase, with a $500 stipend for top step employees. In 2011-2012, employees would move a step, but would not get paid for that step movement. In 2012-2013 and 2013-2014, the district proposes step movement plus a 0.25 percent salary increase. The final year of the deal, 2014-2015, the district proposed step movement plus 0.50 percent salary increase.

The union proposed a 6-year contract. The first year, 2010-2011, the union’s proposal is the same as the district’s: step movement only (2.5 percent increase) with a $500 stipend for top step employees. In 2011-2012, the union proposes step movement with a stipend of $750 added to the top step employees. In 2012-2013, the union proposes a 0.50 percent increase, plus step movement (2.5 percent) plus an $800 stipend for top step employees. In 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, a 0.75 raise each year is proposed, plus step movement and an $800 stipend each year for top-step workers. In the final year, 2015-2016, the union proposes a 1 percent salary increase, step movement and an $850 stipend for top-step teachers.

The union and the district agreed to keep the current insurance plans for the retroactive years, 2010-2013.

In the current school year, the union proposed new hires must select an HMO or PPO plan and current employees will be offered to switch from the traditional Blue Cross plan to the HMO or PPO plan. Deductibles are $175 single/$350 family for Traditional and HMO plans.

From 2014 to 2016, deductibles will be $250/$500 for traditional and HMO plans.

The district plan eliminates the Traditional Blue Cross plan. According to the district’s plan, in the current school year or as soon as possible, all teachers must enroll in a PPO plan with $250 single/$500 family deductible.

The district’s plan also required teachers to pay $25 per pay period for premium sharing.

The union proposed paying teachers who opt out of the health plan a maximum of $7,500 a year while the district proposes a $5,000 cap.

Because the district will likely reject the ruling, the parties will go back to the bargaining table.

Holland called the union’s offer “the best deal in town. The school board won’t get anything better.”

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