Said Jeffrey Sultanik, a veteran lawyer whose firm is aiding school boards in five districts without contracts: "This is the worst budget year in memory for school districts. . . . It's not a pretty picture."
In some districts, the standoffs have led to frayed tempers and confrontations. Nowhere is that more starkly illustrated than in Bucks County's Neshaminy District.
The most contentious issue in the 9,170-student district is whether teachers should pay a portion of their health-care premiums, as they do in most area districts. The two sides are also far apart on wages. The contract expired in mid-2008.
Every move is played out in public as the two sides post on websites, Facebook pages, and YouTube.
Neshaminy Federation of Teachers president Louise Boyd, for example, said in a recent news release issued by a public-relations firm hired by the union that the school board's negotiators were being "egged on by the teacher-bashing crowd whose venom up to now has been confined to blogs and websites."
Ritchie Webb, school board president, countered that the union "must stop its posturing and pretense, and make some real concessions that reflect the reality of the times."
In Montgomery County's 5,072-student Hatboro-Horsham district, contract negotiations have dragged into a second year. Reflecting a national debate about teacher pay and accountability, the board had proposed that teachers switch from a salary schedule determined by seniority and educational attainment to a system awarding merit pay for gains in students' performance.
The Hatboro-Horsham Education Association resisted, citing studies showing the unreliability of judging teacher performance using student test scores.
Last fall, the board called instead for a joint committee to develop a compensation program based at least in part on student performance. Both sides would have to approve it. Hatboro-Horsham Education Association president Jackie Anderson said in an interview that "teachers are open to exploring it."
The main obstacle to a settlement now, both sides agree, is a school board proposal to increase health-care premium co-pays for some plans.
In Bucks County's Pennsbury School District, for some school board members, the negotiations are not just about salaries, health care, and the length of the school year. They reflect a drive to curb the power of the teachers union.
Salaries and health care in the 11,200-student district are the main economic issues. But the board's proposals also include the elimination of a contract provision that says teachers who don't belong to the union must nonetheless pay a "fair share" union fee because even nonmembers receive some union services.
The board also proposed that the district stop withholding dues from teachers' paychecks, requiring the union to collect them some other way.
School board member Simon Campbell, who is also the leader of a group called Stop Teacher Strikes that wants to ban them statewide, has become a polarizing figure in the talks.
Campbell said in an interview that making nonmembers pay the fees is "a fundamental violation of an individual's right to choose." He added: "That money is being used to corrupt the legislative process in Harrisburg - we should not be their collection agent. We are taking on the teachers union."
George Miller, president of the Pennsbury Education Association, responded in an e-mail that "a small disgruntled minority, led by a publicity-seeking, politically motivated school board director, should not be allowed . . . to damage the integrity" of the district.
Gene Dolnick, Pennsbury school board president, said last week that "the board wanted to put everything on the table that was a concern. . . . It doesn't necessarily mean that everything will be put in force."
In the Central Bucks, Centennial, New Hope-Solebury, Phoenixville, and Pottstown districts, talks are going on with little fanfare. Websites offer little or no information about what the sides seek.
Central Bucks school board meetings, for example, feature no regular updates, and there are few questions from residents.In fact, the hottest topic in December was a proposed change in the German-language program.
Negotiators decided "it is in the best interests of the district not to talk about it. That's all I can say," said spokeswoman Carol Counihan. The Central Bucks Education Association also declined to comment.
The bottom line
Whether raucous or decorous, teachers and school boards are facing difficult realities. Under Act One, a state law designed to keep local school taxes down, more than two-thirds of area school boards are limited to raising tax rates by no more than 1.4 percent in budgets that go into effect July 1.
Some loopholes are allowed, but many boards have vowed to keep to the 1.4 percent limit. Meanwhile, health-insurance costs in the Philadelphia area are projected to go up at least 9 percent this year.
As a result of the difficult economic situation, teachers have largely forgone their usual weapon of last resort: the strike.
In the early 2000s, there was almost always at least one fall strike in an area school district. Last school year, there were none in the fall and one in the spring; so far this school year, there have been none. Statewide figures show the same trend.
"Teachers don't just strike at the drop of a hat," said Rob Broderick, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents most suburban teachers. "They are painfully aware of what's going on in the world around them."
Districts Without Contracts
Centennial, Central Bucks, Neshaminy, New Hope- Solebury, Pennridge, Pennsbury
Phoenixville Area, Unionville-Chadds Ford
Hatboro-Horsham, Perkiomen Valley, Pottstown, Wissahickon
Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134 or at email@example.com.