Tensions flare at East Allegheny school board meeting; teachers continue strike

A banging gavel trying to reel in a rowdy crowd at the East Allegheny school board meeting could hardly be heard over teachers -- who had stood all day on the picket line -- cheering for their allies.

Today, those teachers enter their second day of picketing following a contract dispute with the board, focusing mainly on teacher salaries, with no end in sight.

“Do you see my hair? I’m not cutting it” until there’s a resolution, Superintendent Roger D'Emidio said after the meeting Tuesday night.

East Allegheny School District teachers strike

East Allegheny School District teachers strike

It’ll grow down to his ankles, he expects.

For the district to offer 180 days of instruction by June 15, 2015, the strike can last until Sept. 23, with teachers returning the next day, state education department spokesman Tim Eller said.

Despite the strike, some after-school activities continue. Coaches who are not teachers are holding activities, and teachers who coach cannot participate, school board president Gerri C. McCullough said. Volunteers are also helping, as in the case of the band, which has a large booster club and parents with clearances.

On Tuesday morning, dressed in blue T-shirts, all 133 teachers held signs in support of their union at four sites, including both entrances to the campus and along Route 30, organizers said. Some students marched alongside their teachers. Members of the community brought food and drinks for the picketers.

“We all want to be there for our kids,” Cheryl Ihnat, East Allegheny Education Association president, told reporters Tuesday, “but simultaneously it is our livelihood, as well.”

Despite efforts in the past week, including a Friday evening session, the association and board have failed to agree on the terms of a new contract. The teachers have worked without a contract since 2012.

Ms. Ihnat said Tuesday morning that she provided Mr. D'Emidio written details of the union's latest proposal for a five-year contract that includes a two-and-a-half year pay freeze. It was discussed -- but not formally proposed -- during talks on Friday, she said.

In that plan, the union suggests pay freezes in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, and a step movement on the salary scale in the second half of the third work year. Plus, it says, teachers at the top of the scale would receive $500.

The district proposed a five-year contract, in which salaries would be frozen the first two school years, and in the 2014-15 school year, teachers would receive $1,100. During the 2015-16 school year and again in the 2016-17 school year, teachers would climb one step up the pay scale and those at the top would receive $800.

East Allegheny teachers follow a 16-step scale, which generally means it takes 16 years to reach the top.

In a statement, the district said it has made “the most aggressive financial proposal it could afford to make.” To meet teachers’ demands, the district said it would either need to significantly increase taxes or cut student programs, “neither of which seem appropriate under the circumstances.”

According to a statement on its website, the district is dealing with a more than $1 million deficit, largely because of pension and health-care costs, stagnant state funding and charter school costs.

No further negotiation meetings have been scheduled.

The 1,700-student district serves East McKeesport, North Versailles, Wilmerding and Wall and some middle and high school students from Duquesne.

At the board meeting, members opted to start the public comment session early to satisfy the several hundred people in attendance, at least a dozen of whom signed up to speak. About 80 percent of the teachers’ union was present.

Tensions flared. Some who took the microphone adamantly supported teachers. Others vehemently opposed tax increases.

Mike Paradine, an alumnus, parent and taxpayer, sparred with the board and demanded, “Stop battling with the educators.”

Others yet pleaded with the administration: Let the seniors attend classes and graduate on time. Mr. D'Emidio said the district does not have enough administrators to put them in classrooms with seniors.

Ms. Ihnat closed the public comment session by thanking the community for its support.

“I hope this isn’t just a one-night thing. I hope you continue to come, and that you continue to pay attention,” she said.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Lexi Belculfine: lbelculfine@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878.

First Published September 2, 2014 9:04 AM

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