Neshaminy teachers hit the bricks again

Posted: June 06, 2012

Teachers in the Neshaminy School District went on strike Monday for the second time this year, saying they want an end to the contract impasse that has bubbled and boiled for nearly four years.

Members of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers picketed in the sun and the rain outside each of the district’s 13 schools in lower Bucks County, as classes for the 7,000 students were canceled.

High-school seniors were excused from final exams they missed. Their graduation is still scheduled for June 13, but the school year could be extended up to two weeks, both sides said.

”We’re not here by choice, but because the school board has left us no choice,” the union’s vice president, Jeff Dunkley, said outside Neshaminy High School. "They have presented nothing but exceedingly more punitive proposals, while we’ve offered six proposals that have been exceedingly more modest."

School board members, meanwhile, said they were holding firm to proposals for pay and benefits that the district can afford while trying to pare a $5.5 million shortfall in next year’s budget.

Board member and negotiator Mike Morris said of the strikers, "They’re doing this to hurt the students, to force the board to agree to a foolish contract."

The teachers are completing their fourth year without a raise, but have retained other benefits under the expired contract, including health-care coverage without making contributions.

The teachers are asking for 80 percent of raises missed since their contract expired in 2008, plus annual wage increases of 1 percent to 3.25 percent from last year through the 2013-14 school year. The school board says it can only afford very limited retroactive pay and has offered 1 percent raises for this year and each of the next two years.

Under the district’s proposal, base salaries would range from $42,552 to $96,883 this year.

The union, which represents 633 teachers, guidance counselors, librarians and nurses, called the strike to build on gains resulting from its eight-day strike in January, leaders said.

"Without the January strike, we wouldn’t have reached non-binding arbitration," Dunkley said, "and without non-binding arbitration, we wouldn’t have reached the right to a second strike."

Now, the union’s goal is for the state Department of Education to file for an injunction in Bucks County Court to force the school board into more intensive negotiations, president Louise Boyd said.

"We are doing everything we can to involve a judge," Boyd said. "There are judges in this county who want this impasse to end."

Both sides are expecting the state to set a June 18 deadline for teachers to return to work to complete the mandated 180-day school year. An injunction can be requested any time during the strike, Boyd said.

The union is seeking more negotiations even though the 39 sessions to date, including one last week, have produced meager results.

And the board refuses to negotiate while the teachers are on strike, putting the scheduled June 12 bargaining session in jeopardy.

"We’re willing to talk any time, but the talks have to be meaningful and realistic," board president Ritchie Webb said. "We’ve never gotten to the point that it’s realistic."

If the union fails to gain ground now, "we’ll start next year at the same point we did this year," Boyd said.

The union "is trying to steer this to binding arbitration, just like it did to non-binding arbitration, and supersede the public’s rights," Morris said.

The board unanimously rejected the independent arbitrator’s recommendations last month, with Webb putting the district’s cost at $20 million.

In addition to raises and back pay, the two sides remain far apart on health and retirement benefits.

The teachers, who have never contributed to their health care coverage, have offered to pay 8 percent of the annual premiums compared to the district’s proposed 15 percent. And they have offered to reduce the $27,500 benefit they receive (along with free insurance coverage for them and their dependents) if they retire after 10 or more years of consecutive service. The district wants to drop that benefit.

At the Langhorne Coffee House, Larry Good III, Class of 2000 at Neshaminy High, said he has friends who are teachers in the district.

"I think the contract should be more in line with what people in private industry get," said Good, who works in his family’s heating and air conditioning business. "It’s not fair to pay 2, 3, 4 percent raises annually and not pay for health care."

His father added, "Everyone would like to see it just be over... We can’t afford it, and they [the teachers] want it."

"I hope they come up with a good resolution," Larry Good Jr. said, "but I don’t think there will be one."

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

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