As Neshaminy teachers picket, students and parents wait

Neshaminy teachers picket outside Neshaminy High School in early morning January 9, 2012. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Neshaminy teachers picket outside Neshaminy High School in early morning January 9, 2012. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: January 09, 2012

After working without a contract for 3½ years, Neshaminy teachers took to the streets Monday, shutting down the lower Bucks County district and leaving 7,000 students without classes.

Leaders of the 654-member Neshaminy Federation of Teachers called the strike out of frustration over the lagging and often acrimonious contract talks. The school board promptly responded by suspending negotiations in what already is the longest current impasse in Pennsylvania.

"This is a power play," School Board President Richie Webb said hours after union members started picketing outside each of the district's 12 schools. "They're using our children as pawns - hostages, if you will - to hold a hammer over my head in negotiations.

"When they go back to work, we'll start negotiating," said Webb, whose wife was watching their four school-age grandchildren. "We won't negotiate in a hostile environment like this."

On the picket lines, the suspended talks drew attention from the main issues of pay raises, health-care costs and professional collaboration.

"We will be there on Thursday," eighth-grade history teacher Stephanie Rosales said outside Oliver Heckman Elementary School in Langhorne about the next scheduled negotiations, now on hold. "I want to know where they [district negotiators] will be. We've negotiated in good faith; they have not."

In front of Neshaminy High School, social studies teacher Jeff Dunkley said, "We have to get back to the table. This is disheartening."

Dunkley, a union vice president and negotiator, added, "They want nothing short of complete capitulation, including on noneconomic issues."

Webb said the two sides were $29 million apart, while union vice president Anne Schmidt said they're "much closer" than that.

The district's offer includes a 1 percent raise to the base salaries of from $42,552 to $95,923 for this school year and the next two years, but no retroactive raises. It would cost $4.2 million this year, Webb said.

The union's most recent counteroffer calls for increases of 2.75 percent, 3 percent, and 3.5 percent, plus retroactive raises as well. The retroactive pay would cost $9 million, which the district does not have, Webb said. A 2.75 percent raise, coupled with increased pay for experience, would total $9.5 million, he said.

To fund part of the raises, both sides would have teachers contribute to their health-care costs for the first time. The union's offer is a flat 8 percent for each of the three years, while the district is seeking 15 percent. Retirees and their spouses, who currently get free health-care benefits, also would contribute to their premiums.

The union's plan also calls for a 2.1-mill tax increase, which would produce $1.6 million. But Webb said that raising taxes is the "last resort."

"Raise taxes in the worst recession in 80 years? I have people worried about food to eat and buying fuel to heat their home," Webb said.

With the schools closed, parents had to worry about providing care for their children.

"It's not helping parents," Brooke Levin said after dropping off her third-grade son for day care at Oliver Heckman. "I don't see how it's helping their cause."

The district provided day care for schoolchildren at six of the eight elementary schools, charging $25 for 7:15 a.m. to 6 p.m. and $20 for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The second child cost $15, the third was free.

Participation totaled 146 children, below the average 180 students for the normal pre- and after-school programs, Superintendent Louis Muenker said. "We figure a lot of older brothers and sisters were home to watch their siblings."

Amy Graham Barth of Langhorne said she would use the service later in the week if the strike was still on. On Monday, her day off as a nurse-practitioner, she was faced with explaining the strike to her daughter, Julia, 7, a second grader at Lower Southampton Elementary School.

"Julia said, 'I don't want to be on strike.' She doesn't understand why she can't go to school," Barth said.

When she took Julia to school to get some books, her daughter waved at her picketing teachers.

"This is what they do on strike, just walk back and forth?" Julia asked her mother.

State law allows teachers to strike, but they must return in time to provide 180 school days by June 30.

Senior Courtney Birkhead, 17, of Langhorne, said she was worried that the strike would interfere with her applying to Pennsylvania State University by the mid-February deadline.

"This is discouraging. It interferes with getting transcripts and letters of recommendation," she said. "I'm concerned about my future."

The high school's College and Career Center will provide help to seniors, according to the district's website, but not by guidance counselors.

Birkhead is also concerned about Graduation Day getting pushed back from the beginning of June, since she has two vacations planned.

Another senior, Amanda Morelli, 17, said the contract dispute has been hanging over students' heads for the last four years. Last year and again this year, the union instituted job actions that limited members' work.

"It affected us more in the high school than in middle school," Morelli said. "We're more involved in grades. . . . It's really stressful. This hasn't helped."

Morelli said she was involved in two school productions that could be pushed back because of the strike. One is scheduled Friday, and The Phantom of the Opera is set for Feb. 8 to 11.

"We have to run practices ourselves while they're on strike, but we can't build the sets because we can't use power tools," she said. "We're not sure how we're going to do that, but we're going to make it work."


Contact staff writer Bill Reed at 215-801-2964, wreed@philly.com, and @breedbucks on Twitter. Read his blog, "BucksInq," at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

Inquirer staff writer Kathy Boccella contributed to this article.

|
|
|
|
|