Teacher con­tract talks reach an im­passe

The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) - - LOCAL NEWS - By Os­car Gam­ble ogam­ble@21st-cen­tu­ry­media. com @OGam­ble_TH on Twit­ter

NORRISTOWN » A teach­ers’ strike could be looming in the Methac­ton School District if an im­passe in con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions is not re­solved within quickly ap­proach­ing dead­lines.

The school board an­nounced in a press re­lease that it has uni­lat­er­ally filed a fact-find­ing re­quest with the Penn­syl­va­nia La­bor Re­la­tions Board in an ef­fort to set­tle on a con­tract with the Methac­ton Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents 403 ed­u­ca­tors who teach ap­prox­i­mately 5,000 stu­dents in the district’s seven schools.

If the la­bor board ac­cepts the school district’s re­quest, a neu­tral third party will be as­signed to per­form a 40-day review of pro­pos­als from each side and file a re­port with con­tract rec­om­men­da­tions.

The district and the union would then have 10 days to ac­cept or re­ject the re­port in a process that would cul­mi­nate on Nov. 19.

Although a strike is pro­hib­ited while fact-find­ing is un­der­way, the Methac­ton Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion could pre­clude the process should teach­ers choose to walk be­fore Sept. 19.

Ac­cord­ing to the district, most ma­jor is­sues, in­clud­ing the de­vel­op­ment of salary sched­ules and work sched­ules, have been re­solved, but a chasm re­mains be­tween la­bor and man­age­ment when it comes to health care cov­er­age and pre­mium shar­ing, which the district says it wants to bring in line with neigh­bor­ing school districts.

The teach­ers, who say they were blind sided and dis­ap­pointed by the district’s de­ci­sion to uni­lat­er­ally file for the fact-find­ing re­quest a day af­ter lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tions broke down, ar­gue that they have made con­sid­er­able con­ces­sions to help the district stay sol­vent through the Great Re­ces­sion and feel dis­re­spected by hav­ing be­ing pre­sented with a con­tract that would place them near the top of the county in terms of pre­mium-shar­ing ex­pense while re­main­ing be­low the county av­er­age in salaries.

“Our goal is to set­tle the con­tract as soon as pos­si­ble through bar­gain­ing,” said Diana Kernop, co-pres­i­dent of the Methac­ton Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion. “We feel that there are very few is­sues sep­a­rat­ing us.”

With fact-find­ing, ei­ther party could put is­sues back in play that could block a more eas­ily at­tain­able set­tle­ment, she added.

“The district needs to con­tinue to make an in­vest­ment in their teach­ers. We work hard, and we’re a very high-per­form­ing district,” she said.

Kernop cited a pay freeze and de­layed salary in­creases in the pre­vi­ous two four-year con­tracts, re­spec­tively, as ex­am­ples of con­ces­sions from teach­ers that al­lowed the district to “im­prove their fi­nances dra­mat­i­cally.” She also pointed to the “count­less hours” teach­ers put in dur­ing the re­struc­tur­ing pe­riod sur­round­ing the re­cent clos­ing of Audubon El­e­men­tary School and said for the first time in her 40-year ca­reer, she is see­ing re­ten­tion is­sues with teach­ers in the district.

“We want them to re­spect us and we want them to put ed­u­ca­tion first, but you can’t put ed­u­ca­tion first if you put teach­ers last,” Kernop said.

In a state­ment in­cluded with the re­lease, school board Pres­i­dent Chris Board­man ex­pressed hope that the fact-find­ing process would help re­solve the la­bor dis­pute “in a pos­i­tive way.”

“We have been ne­go­ti­at­ing since Jan­uary, uti­lized the sup­port of a state me­di­a­tor and have tried ev­ery­thing in our power to reach an agree­ment that is fair and fis­cally re­spon­si­ble. I am hop­ing that factfind­ing will make this a re­al­ity. Also, I hope par­ents’ minds will be put at ease since a strike can­not oc­cur dur­ing this process,” Board­man said.

On Wed­nes­day, the Penn­syl­va­nia State Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sen­ta­tive lead­ing the Methac­ton Ed­u­ca­tion As­so­ci­a­tion in bar­gain­ing sub­mit­ted a pro­posal to the district’s chief ne­go­tia­tor on be­half of the teach­ers union. The union is wait­ing to find out whether the district will con­sider the pro­posal or present a counter of­fer.

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