In the Shaler Area School District -- one of 11 school districts in Allegheny County holding teacher contract talks as the school year begins -- time is running out.
The teachers union, working without a contract since summer 2011, says it will strike if a settlement is not reached by the Sept. 3 start of classes.
Talks resume Wednesday, but if a deal is not reached by late afternoon Friday -- the start of the three-day Labor Day weekend -- superintendent Wes Shipley said he likely will act before the union does.
Saying he does not want parents and students to leave town for the holiday unsure about the start of classes, he will cancel the first day, even if a breakthrough occurs over the weekend, with the hope that any closure lasts only one day.
To do otherwise, he said, "I don't think is fair to the community."
"The mediator made it pretty clear he is willing to work over the Labor Day holiday," he said. "I think both sides are anxious for an agreement to be completed."
Anyone tempted to think that last year -- Pennsylvania's first year without a teachers strike in more than four decades -- ushered in a new and less confrontational era may want to hold that thought.
Even if strikes have not been threatened in other school districts, teachers and administrators are entering the 2013-14 school year with unresolved negotiations, including Bethel Park, whose teachers have been working without a contract since the old one expired June 30, 2010.
In Allegheny County alone, a check of school district offices indicated that in addition to Shaler Area and Bethel Park, districts in varied stages of negotiation include Duquesne, Pine-Richland, Deer Lakes, East Allegheny, Gateway, Montour, Sto-Rox, Elizabeth Forward and Wilkinsburg.
In some districts, contracts have not yet expired, among them Elizabeth Forward, whose pact runs through Saturday. Others already have lapsed, and teachers are working under old contracts.
On Wednesday, the Bethel Park administration notified the union of its intent to ask the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to appoint a fact-finding panel. Fact-finding is a nonbinding process.
The last fact-finding process in March 2012 was undertaken at the union's request. It yielded recommendations rejected by both sides in May that year.
Bethel Park teachers struck the year their contract expired, but both sides said last week there was no indication thus far that the protracted dispute is headed for another work stoppage.
Diann Smith, president and chief negotiator for the 502-member Bethel Park Federation of Teachers, expressed surprise and disappointment at the district's move Wednesday, which she said came just hours after both sides met through a mediator.
Her team left with the understanding that the district was planning to consider a concept pertaining to pay. She expressed concern that the decision the district made instead will slow an already lengthy process.
"We know what the facts are," she said. "We have gathered facts for the last three years."
"We're going into our fourth year. It's four years of not having any increase in salary [and] really not knowing where we are with things," she added.
In a statement Wednesday, Bethel Park superintendent Aloi Rose said:
"The District is eager to get this resolved and we believe that Fact-Finding will help us to move off center and keep the momentum moving forward. ... We believe Fact-Finding is the best path for the District to travel at this point in time."
Ms. Rose was unavailable for additional comment. According to the district, salary and benefits have been issues throughout the talks, but other factors having an impact on negotiations include state funding cuts, rising costs and limits on districts' ability to raise taxes.
Ms. Smith cited class size as another issue.
In Shaler Area, both sides have wrestled with issues including wages, employee contributions to health care and the number of teaching periods for secondary teachers.
Melissa Ravas, president of the 390-member Shaler Area Education Association, could not be reached for comment last week.
But last month, she called the district's contract offer regressive.
"In essence, they're asking us to negotiate against ourselves to meet their needs," she said.
The state Department of Education would set the length of any strike if one occurs based on ensuring 180 days of instruction by June 15.
In a statement earlier this month, Mr. Shipley said the district believes the last possible day for a strike to end would be Sept. 20, which is a Friday, with school resuming Sept. 23.
Students attending A.W. Beattie Career Center would continue to do so throughout a strike. School sports for grades 7-12 and marching band would continue with support of administrative staff, coaches and parent volunteers.
Makeup days are expected to occur within the current calendar, the statement added. Homecoming, set for Sept. 28, is expected to be held as planned.
Prior to last school year, Pennsylvania's last recorded year without a teachers strike was in 1970, the year such strikes became legal, said Steve Robinson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
With the economy still sluggish, the trend in recent years toward fewer work stoppages appears to be continuing, but there is anecdotal evidence "of negotiations taking a bit longer in this climate," said Tom Templeton, PSBA assistant executive director for school board and management services.
School boards, faced with varied financial pressures, are going to the bargaining table with a hard eye not only on common cost drivers such as wages and health care but also items such as reimbursement for college courses.
"Over the last couple years, there was pretty strong emphasis on pay freezes," Mr. Templeton said. "That continues to be an issue that's on the table."
About half of the state's 500 school districts are in negotiations, according to data from the PSBA based on self-reporting by districts and news accounts.
Local school districts said talks were in varying stages. Some offered general descriptions of issues, while others declined to discuss them at all.
"It's ongoing," Pine-Richland spokeswoman Rachel Hathhorn said. "Both sides agreed not to talk about the particulars."
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1977 or on Twitter @BschacknerPG.