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Strike-free school year in Western Pa. called an anomaly, not a trend | TribLIVE.com
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Strike-free school year in Western Pa. called an anomaly, not a trend

John Harris
| Sunday, August 4, 2013 11:06 p.m
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Erica Hilliard, contributing photographer
Tom Hoffman of Gibsonia and Garett Butler of Cabot, high school math teachers at Knoch High School, carry picket signs during a strike at Knoch High School on Sept. 21, 2009. (Trib file photo)

Pennsylvania teachers have clocked their first school year in nearly three decades without a strike, temporarily ending the state’s reign as the most notorious for strikes nationwide.

But school watchers call the 2012-13 academic year an anomaly. The lull in significant contract disagreements likely won’t continue, they say, and several Western Pennsylvania districts are wrestling with teachers unions for their second and third years without contracts.

“I don’t see this happening twice,” said Butch Santicola, who retired on Wednesday as spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union representing 183,000 members.

“We already have so many economy and funding issues; a lot of people are just taking their time with negotiations,” he said. “The crisis isn’t any less important, but teachers know administrators and taxpayers are strained.”

According to the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a nonprofit educational policy group based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania teachers make more money even as average attendance drops. Pittsburgh Public Schools teachers average about $10,000 more than the state mean — on par with Chicago-area teachers — at about $71,000. The state ranks fourth nationwide in average teacher pay and benefits.

Cash-strapped districts are looking to union contracts to cut costs since the state reduced school funding $1.1 billion in 2011. Administrators say the state’s budget, which adds $122.5 million to education, won’t even begin to cover deficits.

On the precipice

Bethel Park and Shaler Area school districts could be among the first to strike this year.

In their latest fact-finding report in April, Bethel Park officials proposed changes to reduce operating expenses, including eliminating overtime pay, some rest periods, sick leave time, six paid holidays and severance pay. They would impose significant wage reductions for bus drivers.

Teachers and administrators will meet on Aug. 14 for their 61st session in three years.

Disagreements continue for Shaler Area regarding salary bumps, workloads, health care costs and other issues. Teachers in June filed to strike on the first day of school, Sept. 3, if the sides can’t reach a contract deal by then. The district’s 380 teachers are working under terms of a contract that expired on Aug. 15, 2011.

Duquesne City School District, whose teachers last struck for three days during the 2008-09 school year, has yet to settle its most recent round of contract negotiations, but, Santicola said, “The bargaining process is not cantankerous.”

The district has been without a contract since June 30, 2012.

Pine-Richland School District contracts expired in June. A small coalition of taxpayers presented a petition with 50 signatures to board members during their July 16 meeting, imploring teachers to contribute at least 15 percent — up from a 5 percent contribution — to the monthly cost of their health insurance.

‘Tactic of last resort’

In a July study, the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon reported 115 strikes statewide between 1997 and 2013, including 39 among districts in Allegheny, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland, Indiana, Beaver and Fayette counties. Neither Armstrong nor Greene counties logged a strike in 16 years.

“It’s important to see where we’ve been, especially in a year where we went all year without a strike just seven years after an all-time high” between 2005-07, said Eric Montarti, who tracked Pennsylvania strike data for the Allegheny Institute.

“In the group of states that permit teacher strikes, we’re constantly in the lead.”

Pennsylvania is one of eight states that permit teacher strikes. Collective bargaining for school employees is legal in 35 states, but 22 forbid striking as a way to settle bargaining disputes. Five states have no laws regarding the matter.

From 2000 to 2007, Pennsylvania teachers were responsible for 82 strikes, about 60 percent of all work stoppages nationwide. During that period, Ohio logged 23 strikes and Illinois, 19.

Barbara Goodman, communications director for the American Federation of Teachers’ Pennsylvania chapter, said strikes always are a “tactic of last resort.”

“It’s never the first place the teachers’ union wants to go,” Goodman said, “but it’s a resource that can require the two groups to come back to the table.”

Restricting missed days

Using data from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Montarti calculated the number of strike days at 1,177 during the past 16 years, affecting more than 300,000 students for a cumulative 3.8 million days out of class.

Regionally, Seneca Valley, Washington, Marion Center, Wilkinsburg, Highlands, South Butler, Riverview and Homer-Center school districts were highlighted by the Allegheny Institute for each having more than two dozen student days out of class.

Act 88, passed in 1992, restricts the number of missed days because of strikes. Student days are made up, Santicola said, so strikes can last only as long as it takes the district to put in 180 instructional days before June 15. A second strike can last as long as it takes to clock 180 days by June 30.

“Student days are always accounted for,” he said. “But 20 years ago, yeah, we lost plenty of days back then.”

Bethel Park lost 40 days to two strikes, a high second only to Lackawanna County’s Old Forge School District, where four most recent strikes kept students away a cumulative 46 days. A work stoppage settled this year still could be ruled a strike, which would retroactively break the one-year streak.

Diann Smith, president of Bethel Park Federation of Teachers, declined to comment because of contract negotiations.

The district has operated without a contract since June 30, 2010.

“These protracted negotiations definitely put (Bethel Park) in the minority,” Goodman said. “But to their credit, they’re still working on it. We’re hopeful.”

Megan Harris is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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