As school opens in Pennsylvania, teacher strikes have dropped sharply

11th grade English teacher Suzi Drake carries her sign as she walks the picket line outside Neshaminy High School in early morning January 9, 2012. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
11th grade English teacher Suzi Drake carries her sign as she walks the picket line outside Neshaminy High School in early morning January 9, 2012. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 11, 2012

Not many years ago, along with the reappearance of school buses and brightly colored leaves, there was a predictable sign of fall: teacher strikes.

Though walkouts were never numerous, in most years, one or more of the 63 school districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties had teachers on picket lines.

Since the recession hit in late 2007, however, there has been a sharp drop-off in strikes.

As schools opened this month, 16 districts in the area - four in Bucks, five in Chester County, four in Delaware County, and three in Montgomery - still had unresolved labor agreements. But there have been no walkouts, and no immediate sign of any to come, though in one - Neshaminy - a strike could yet take place.

In three districts - Rose Tree Media and Wallingford-Swarthmore, both in Delaware County, and Tredyffrin/Easttown in Chester County - tentative agreements have been reached, with ratification votes scheduled for later this month or next.

Teachers in districts with expired contracts are working under the terms of their old agreements, but without salary increases or other changes in their terms of employment.

Why have there been fewer strikes?

"The recession and the current economic and political climate have produced greater pressure on school district budgets," said Wythe Keever, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "And we've seen unprecedented layoffs and state budget cuts in recent years. Teachers have showed they are willing to share in the sacrifices to try and preserve programs for students."

Statewide, strikes are down sharply since 2005-06 and 2006-07, when there were 13 each year. Since then, there have been no more than seven walkouts in any school year.

Last school year, only one district had a strike. That was in Bucks County's Neshaminy District, where a bitter contract battle dating to 2008 continues with no settlement in sight. The teachers went on strike twice in 2012: once in January, once in June.

In 2010-11, there were only three strikes statewide, none in the Philadelphia area.

That does not mean an era of labor peace has arrived. But even where there are difficult-to-resolve issues, teachers seem more reluctant to stage work stoppages.

As the recession hit, more taxpayers grew vocal, demanding that school boards keep expenses in check. Chief among those expenses are salaries and benefits, which account for, on average, more than 60 percent of districts' budgets.

Also, less local funding was available, as tax reassessments, slower home sales, and low interest rates cut into districts' revenue. Education funding from the state was also sharply cut in 2011-12 and largely stayed level for 2012-13, and pension costs for districts rose steeply.

Finally, a state law that went into effect in 2006 capped the amount by which school boards could raise taxes without holding voter referendums.

"The resources are simply not there" for salary increases in many districts, said David Davare, research director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "And we are hearing the public say, 'We don't want to see any more [teacher salary] increases - enough is enough.' . . . Both parties realize that a strike would not benefit anybody."

In many districts, teachers' unions went farther than simply not striking.

Seeing the combination of taxpayer discontent and shrinking revenue, they agreed to concessions to save jobs and classroom offerings, rather than incur more staff cuts.

Statewide, teachers in at least 136 of 500 school districts negotiated wage freezes for the 2011-12 school year, according to the school boards association. Locally, at least 15 districts agreed to them. Several contract settlements for 2012-13 also include wage freezes.

Still, tensions continue in some districts.

Besides Neshaminy, which has the longest unresolved teachers' contract in the state, three area districts - Pennsbury in Bucks County, Phoenixville in Chester County, and Pottstown in Montgomery County - have been without contracts since 2010. In Chester County's Downingtown district, the contract expired in August 2011. Wages and benefits are the main bones of contention in all of the disputes, but there are other unresolved issues as well.


Contact Dan Hardy at 601-313-8134, dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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