Strikes Dot Pennsylvania School Landscape in First Week Back

While classes beginning in most schools in Pennsylvania, teachers in three districts around the state are going on strike. After last-minute negotiations with district officials broke down last week, teachers at Old Forge took to the picket lines and were joined there by teachers from Luzerne County and Wyoming Area School Districts, where fruitless contract talks have been ongoing for close to three years.

Melissa Dolman, president of the local teachers union, vowed to keep the teachers out of the classrooms at least until September 30th unless some progress was made towards the new contract.

Although talks between the teachers and district officials at nearby Shaler Area School District have likewise stalled – and contrary to expectations, negotiators for the district didn’t provide teachers with an alternative proposal after the latest failed session earlier this week – the union reps attended a scheduled session this Wednesday.

Officials said that under state law, all instructional days lost due to the walkouts must be made up by the end of June of next year. Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that if a strike reaches a point where there aren’t enough days left in the school year for students to complete studies, the Secretary of Education can petition a local court of common pleas to end it. That day will be reached on Sept. 24 for Shaler, Eller said, but calculations aren’t complete yet for the other two school districts.

Meanwhile, the majority of the state’s 1.7 million public school students are back to school this week, although a number of districts opened their doors even before Labor Day. Phoenixville Area School District schools were nearly shut, but thanks to a last-minute negotiating push by officials and the union, the conflict over the teachers contract that spanned more than 3.5 years was finally resolved there in the middle of last month.

A similar last-minute save was also accomplished in Neshaminy School District which was the setting of the longest ongoing contract dispute in the state, clocking in at more than 5 years and resulting in 2 strikes in 2012.

Being one of the longest-standing unresolved teachers contracts in the state “is a record no one wants.” But the alternative — settling for a contract that doesn’t provide the raises, health care and working conditions requested by the teachers — is worse, Mr. Michalski said. Bethel Park teachers staged a six-week strike in the fall of 2010.

Union negotiators in Bethel Park and Shaler have been told their districts simply cannot afford their demands.

Shaler superintendent Wesley Shipley said Tuesday it would be irresponsible to negotiate a contract “that would totally deplete the district’s fund balance.”

Salary, health care contributions and workload are the main sticking points in the Shaler negotiations.