More labor peace in schools

Posted: August 26, 2013

As parents and students hustle to back-to-school sales and teachers prepare their curriculums for the new year, something unfamiliar is in the late-summer air in several large suburban school districts: labor peace.

Bitter, high-profile contract battles in the Pennsbury, Phoenixville Area, and Neshaminy School Districts all ended in deals in recent months. In the case of Neshaminy, the squabble had dragged on for five years.

With a slowly improving yet uncertain economy, teachers and other union staffers generally won modest pay hikes but gave back some benefits.

Not that all is quiet, and Philadelphia doesn't have a monopoly on labor acrimony.

With the 2013-14 school year imminent, teachers and administrators in other districts, such as West Chester's, are still at odds, and some experts are reluctant to declare that the miniwave of recent contract settlements means an Aquarian age of peace and harmony has finally arrived in the Philadelphia region.

Lawrence Feinberg, the Havertown school board member who cochairs the Keystone State Education Coalition, said the settlement of some of the most contentious contract disputes simply might signal that unionized teachers have come to accept that the era of benefit gains and more substantial raises is over.

"I think they pretty much understand we're not living in those times anymore," Feinberg said. "The economy is not growing. . . . There's not as much leverage," he added, noting that the loss of 20,000 education jobs in Pennsylvania over the last couple of years had created a glut of jobseekers. He said one opening for a kindergarten teacher in Havertown drew 300 applicants.

Still, the list of suburban districts without a contract approaching Labor Day weekend is substantial.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association says 10 of the 62 districts in the counties are negotiating expired contracts, and agreements are coming to an end in 20 others. In the West Chester Area School District, 900 unionized teachers have lacked a contract since summer 2012 amid increasing public acrimony over the stalled talks.

Jeffrey Sultanik, the chief negotiator for West Chester, said rising pension obligations and health-care costs, lagging state funding, and legal limits on tax increases left little room to maneuver. He added that in some cases, union members have every incentive to work without a contract at their existing salaries and benefits.

"Very frankly, the teachers' unions find themselves in situations where they are sometimes better off in living with the current contract because they don't have to make any concession if they don't settle," Sultanik said.

Debbie Fell, president of the West Chester Area Education Association, sees it differently.

"In general, the economy is picking up, the housing industry is picking up, the unemployment numbers are better. We're hopeful we can come to some resolution . . ., but currently, we're not being given any kind of offer to give us an incentive to come to an agreement," she said. "We prefer the status quo."

On Monday, a fact-finder will review the dispute and make a recommendation.

No situation in the counties, however, approaches Philadelphia's, where the union contract is expiring, hundreds of teachers and staff are being laid off, the district is demanding steep pay cuts and other unprecedented givebacks, and the start date of school is uncertain.

By contrast, teachers in several of the most public and protracted labor battles did opt for multiyear contracts this year - perhaps a calculation that an agreement provided insurance against further outbreaks of fiscal uncertainty.

In Neshaminy, the seemingly intractable impasse that spilled over into harsh radio ads and local talk-radio debates finally ended in June with raises for teachers that were offset by higher health-care contributions and other benefit changes.

"Teachers are pretty aware of what's going on economically and willing to make sacrifices to move communities forward," said Zeek Weil, southeastern representative for the PSEA.

Weil said because schools are heavily funded by property taxes, an uptick in the housing market would help negotiators finally come to terms. At the same time, a wild card there is continued wariness over the future of state funding, which plunged sharply when Gov. Corbett took office in 2011.

In addition to West Chester, districts with expired contracts are: Chester Upland, Kennett Consolidated, Southeast Delco, New Hope-Solebury, Palisades, Perkiomen Valley, Spring-Ford, Upper Perkiomen, and Wissahickon.

Those whose teacher contracts expire at the end of this school year are: Avon Grove, Coatesville, Garnet Valley, Great Valley, Interboro, Octorara, Oxford, Ridley, Rose Tree-Media, Bristol Township, Central Bucks, Cheltenham, Colonial, North Penn, Pennridge, Springfield, and Upper Dublin School Districts.


Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com, 610-313-8232, or follow @kathyboccella on Twitter.

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