Neshaminy teachers' strike sparks differences in community

Stephen Perloff sympathizes with striking teachers.
Stephen Perloff sympathizes with striking teachers.
Posted: January 11, 2012

From behind the counter at the Langhorne Coffee House, co-owner Tracey Dornisch-Cramer can see all sides of the Neshaminy teachers' strike, which entered its second day Tuesday.

"Everyone who walks through that door is affected," she said.

"I have students who work part-time who want to be in school. Parents who normally come in don't have money because they have to pay for day care. There are teachers who are customers, and police officers who come in from watching the pickets" at nearby Oliver Heckman Elementary School, Dornisch-Cramer said. "The police were distraught [Monday] that kids were left home alone."

The lower Bucks County district and the 654-member Neshaminy Federation of Teachers have been at odds for 3 1/2 years, with pay and health-care contributions the main stumbling blocks to a contract. The longest current teachers' contract impasse in the state escalated Monday when picketing started at the district's 12 schools and 7,000 students were left without classes.

The school board countered by suspending negotiations, including a session scheduled for Thursday. According to the union, the district also canceled the teachers' health insurance.

"This is putting a lot of stress on the community," said Dornisch-Cramer, 37, a Neshaminy High School graduate. She has posted a sign noting that the staff "remains neutral."

"I want to be Switzerland," she said, laughing.

On Monday, much of the talk at the coffee shop was critical of the teachers, Dornisch-Cramer said. On Tuesday, the tone was somewhat different.

"It's about time they went on strike," said Stephen Perloff, 63, of Langhorne. "The school board refused to negotiate. They turned down a mediator's recommendations."

About three years ago, a fact-finder suggested more negotiations, School Board President Ritchie Webb said Tuesday. Other recommendations, including the extension of free health care, were too expensive for the board to accept, he said.

For the last two years, a state mediator has been involved in the talks.

The community has a responsibility to pay teachers to provide quality education, said Perloff, whose two daughters graduated from Neshaminy elementary and middle schools. "Who's going to be the doctors and nurses 10 years from now?" Perloff asked.

John Krimmel of Langhorne, who has five grandchildren in Neshaminy schools, called the strike a "catastrophic event."

"I don't think teachers had any choice," he said.

At Tuesday night's scheduled board meeting, teachers and board supporters filled the 775-seat Maple Point Middle School auditorium. Teachers chanted, "Negotiate," while board supporters shouted, "Teach our kids," at the start.

The two sides have had 38 negotiating sessions since the contract expired in mid-2008, with the board making three offers and the union making six counterproposals. The board has maintained that it cannot afford retroactive raises for the last three years; the union has lowered its offer to a 1 percent raise in base salaries for last year, plus full restoration of credits for years worked.

"Teachers who started four years ago are still getting a first-year salary, and it's really hurting them," said Lynn Wallace, a retired social studies teacher at Neshaminy Middle School.

Wallace was there in 1981 when the union struck for 13 weeks. That was before the Pennsylvania legislature passed Act 88, which limits teacher strikes to guarantee a 180-day school year ending by June 14.

Based on Act 88, the teachers would have to return by Jan. 20, district Superintendent Louis Muenker said. The state Department of Education would then appoint an arbitrator to gather facts from both sides and make nonbinding recommendations. The union could then call a second strike, which would have to end in time to complete the school year by June 30.

At the coffeehouse, high school juniors Dani McGinty and Kristine Logan were worrying that spring break might be cut short. "People think we're excited to get the time off, but not really," McGinty said. "We have to make it up."

The teachers' union also had its critics. "They say, 'It's all for the students,' and now they're out walking," said Joe Taylor, deputy chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Company.

The union has said that a 2.1-mill tax boost could help pay salary increases of 2.75 percent this school year, 3 percent next year, and 3.5 percent the following year.

The district's offer is a 1 percent raise to the base salaries of $42,552 to $95,923 this year and each of the next two years, with a tax increase a "last resort," Webb has said.

The district also wants teachers to pay a share of their health-care benefits for the first time, a 15 percent contribution. The union has offered to pay a flat 8 percent a year based on this year's premiums, which would amount to a smaller percentage with higher premiums.


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

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