Bethel Park schools, drivers OK contract

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Bethel Park School District solved a labor issue with bus drivers this week and had its first negotiating session in nearly two months with teachers who have been without a contract for nearly three years.

Representatives of the district and the Bethel Park Federation of Teachers met Tuesday for the first time since April 17, but no progress was reported.

The session occurred a day after the school board approved a four-year collective bargaining agreement with its transportation union, ending speculation that the district might contract outside for services.

Teachers have been working under the terms of the 2005-2010 collective bargaining agreement since it expired June 30, 2010.

With Neshaminy School District in Bucks County reaching an agreement last week after five years and two strikes, Bethel Park now is among the districts in Pennsylvania that are operating the longest without a teachers' contract.

"There are still a small handful, approximately five school districts, that have not yet settled contracts with expiration dates in 2010," said Tom Templeton, assistant executive director of school board and management services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Tuesday's negotiating session was brief, lasting about an hour, Walter Michalski, Federation representative for Bethel Park, said Wednesday. "We gave them a comprehensive proposal on all issues."

Future sessions have not yet been scheduled.

"We continue to meet, and the district continues to bargain in good faith," said Vicki Flotta, district director of public relations "We want to keep bargaining until we find an equitable conclusion to the process."

The transportation impasse concluded with approval of a four-year collective bargaining agreement through June 30, 2015, for the district's 60 bus drivers, 16 aides and three mechanics. The previous contract with Bethel Park Transportation Department District Council 84 AFSCME expired June 30, 2011.

The new agreement freezes wages at current levels for the first three years, with a 1 percent increase for all aides and less-senior drivers and mechanics in the final year, according to information provided by the district.

In January, Donna Cook, school board president, acknowledged that the district had been seeking proposals from private transportation providers.

The district and teachers differ on several key issues, including salary and benefits.

The district has proposed a pay freeze for the first year of a proposed five-year contract, to run through 2014-15. Annual raises of $1,000 are called for in subsequent years.

The union seeks increases of $800 the first year, $1,800 the second and third, and $2,000 in each of the final two years.

Another district proposal addresses the salary steps that are assigned for years of service. The expired contract provides for 17 steps, but the district wants to add an 18th.

Teachers get a substantial raise for the final step and work at that salary for the rest of their careers. The so-called "jump step" in the expired contract calls for various levels of pay increases, from $35,117 for teachers with bachelor's degrees to $36,598 for those with doctorates.

At the top of the pay scale, Step 17 doctorate, teachers earn $93,902. First-year teachers with bachelor's degrees receive $45,700. Bethel Park teachers earn an average of $63,227, according to the district.

Regarding health care, the district hopes to save $250,000 per year by replacing a point-of-service plan with a lower-cost health maintenance organization. Also, the district proposes that employees pay a percentage of premium costs rather than the current practice of basing contributions on percentage of salary.

The union opposes a switch to an HMO but agrees to change the contribution to percentage of premium.

Under terms of the expired contract, employees pay 0.525 percent of their gross salary, or $262.50 per $50,000 earned, for individual coverage. The amount for all other levels of coverage is 0.95 percent, or $475 per $50,000 earned.

The district proposes a fair percentage premium contribution of 13 percent, with employees who want to remain on the PPO paying the cost difference between the HMO and the PPO plans.

The union calls for no increases in contributions during the first two years of the contract. Contributions for employees in the first through 16th steps would rise to 6 percent of the premium in the third year, 7 percent in the fourth and 8 percent in the fifth. For Step 17, the contributions would be 9 percent in the third year, 10.5 percent in the fourth year and 12 percent in the final year.

Bethel Park teachers went on a six-week strike from October through December 2010 before returning to work under the provisions of the state's Act 88, which requires school districts to provide 180 days of classroom instruction by June 30 of each year. No work stoppages have occurred since.

Following the strike, Act 88 required the district and federation to participate in Final Best Offer nonbinding arbitration. The arbitration panel issued its decision in July 2011, and the federation and district rejected it.

In March 2012, teachers filed a Request for Appointment of Fact-Finding Panel with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. A PLRB-appointed fact-finder issued recommendations a month later, which both sides rejected.

education - neigh_south

Harry Funk, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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