Wilkinsburg teachers approve contract permitting furloughs

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Wilkinsburg middle and high school students will see fewer teachers next fall -- up to 18 fewer -- but they will have more course selections.

The changes are made possible by a new contract with the Wilkinsburg Education Association that was ratified by teachers Wednesday night, five days after the school board approved the pact. The contract will allow for a merger of the middle and high school staffs, which will give the district more flexibility in how it uses its secondary teachers.

That means students now will be offered honors courses in subjects such as math, English and science, computer courses and eventually advanced placement courses, none of which are currently in the curriculum.

But it also means that some of the 128 teachers currently on staff will be gone, which was a hard pill for the union leadership and membership to swallow.

Union president Mike Evans described asking his members to approve a contract that would eliminate some of their colleague's jobs as "the hardest thing I've had to do as a union leader and as a human being."

The new furloughs follow the elimination of 10 faculty and three administrative positions when the 2013-14 budget was approved last June.

Mr. Evans blamed Gov. Tom Corbett and the state Legislature for the lack of appropriate funding for struggling districts such as Wilkinsburg. "I am not happy with the position the state of Pennsylvania has put the teachers and the children of Wilkinsburg in," Mr. Evans said.

School board president Ed Donovan said the board regrets that teacher furloughs are necessary and said the union's vote showed that its members "saw just how precarious our budget situation is and the need for measures that border on extreme."

Mr. Donovan said the teacher furloughs "will allow us to take steps necessary to implement plans for a new model at the middle and high schools and to add elective and honors courses that are long overdue."

But, because of the furloughs, Mr. Donovan wanted to send a clear message: "This is not a happy day for anyone on the Wilkinsburg board."

He said he has met some of the teachers who are on the furlough list and "I know they are good, they work hard every day, and that they care about our students."

The merger is both a financial and academic decision.

So few courses are offered at the high school that advanced students have almost nothing to choose from by the time they are seniors, and some spend only a few periods a day in school because there is nothing left for them to take.

Merging the staffs means the same teachers can be used for core subjects such as math, science, English and history to teach grades 7-12, while other teaching time can be freed for the more advanced core subjects and varied electives. In addition, the middle and high school complex is significantly larger than is needed for the 269 students enrolled in grades 7-12 as of April 9, so the merged program may mean some sections go unused next year.

The previous teachers contract in the district expired in August 2011, Mr. Evans said. The new pact runs until August 2015. There are no retroactive wages, and the only raises occur as step increases in the 2014-15 school year. Wilkinsburg teachers have had their pay frozen since 2011, Mr. Evans said.

There is a retirement incentive in the contract. Teachers who retire this year will get a $20,000 contribution to an IRA, and those who retire next year will get a $12,000 contribution. Mr. Evans said it's too soon to tell if the incentive will prompt teachers to retire and reduce the number of layoffs necessary.

Also in the contract, teachers will see their health care contribution increase from $20 per month to $30 per month for single coverage and from $20 per month to $40 per month for family coverage.

Chrissy Cortazzo, Pennsylvania State Education Association field representative for Wilkinsburg, said the Wilkinsburg teachers have the lowest career rate salary in Allegheny County. The career rate -- top of scale with a master's degree -- is $75,500, Mr. Evans said. The starting salary with a bachelor's degree, which is $38,400, is "just a few hundred over" the lowest starting salary in the county, Ms. Cortazzo said.

Mr. Evans said the reason for the short term of the contract is the hope that there will be a change in the governor's office and Legislature by 2015 and that more state funding will be available to the district.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590. First Published June 5, 2014 9:13 AM

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