There was nothing but bad news for the Mars Area school board Tuesday night.
A negotiator for the Mars Area Education Association announced that members authorized their negotiating team to call a strike if negotiations break down.
And a crowd of more than 200 parents and teachers watched as a parade of parents complained about the effects of cuts from the current year's budget.
The district is negotiating separately with its teachers and support staff unions, whose contracts expired June 30. The support staff did not authorize a strike vote.
Mark Lewandowski, a teacher on the negotiating committee, said Saturday's strike vote was overwhelming.
The teachers' negotiators have met five times with Superintendent William Pettigrew and Business Manager Jill Swaney.
Beginning Oct. 10, talks will become more formal with Solicitor Tom King and board members joining negotiatons.
"The association is committed to resolving these contract negotiations. We want to see real change on Oct. 10th," Mr. Lewandowski said. "We should meet every day, every hour, until we get this thing resolved."
Mr. King said negotiators will increase the frequency of meetings and that a state mediator will be called if needed. Meanwhile, the next negotiating session is Oct. 23 with the support staff.
"At this point, we are very, very far apart with respect to those negotiations," Mr. King said. "There needs to be a lot of work."
The district has received proposals from firms to outsource the support positions, including secretaries, paraprofessionals and custodians. Outsourcing will save $2.4 million the first two years, Mr. King said, and negotiations have centered around those savings.
"If they meet the savings, the district is required by law to accept it," he said.
Laurie Dufford, president of the support association, said the proposal to outsource their positions immediately followed the union's vote to reject a fact-finder's agreement without any negotiations in between.
Both unions rejected fact-finder's reports in May, while the school board had accepted the reports.
The teachers stood in support each time a parent told board members that this year's cuts were adversely affecting education.
"Over the past year, the school board has made significant cuts to programs and services," said Doug Herold, including increasing class sizes in high school math and cutting guidance counselors and technology support. "Each and every one of these cuts is having a significant impact on my children's education."
Danielle Mannella said the loss of the technology support staff means that kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending half of the class time just logging students into the computers.
William Smith said the furloughs of some guidance counselors will impact anti-bullying and other programs that counselors supervise.
"Gone are the days of school counselors just sitting in their office handing out college applications," he said. "They are vital members of the education team."
Mr. Herold and other parents said they would support a tax increase to bring back eliminated programs and personnel. "We all know that this is not a destitute community. In fact, it is a thriving one," he said.
School board President J. Dayle Ferguson said the cuts have not been as severe as in other school districts, and said the combination of reduced state funding, increased state mandates and an underfunded pension plan are wreaking havoc with budgets.
"We are at a time where there is a lot of stress and anxiety," she said. "We are all worried about the future of public education. We are working in a new fiscal reality that is forcing change. The economic challenges that we face are bigger than a single year. They are not going to go away any time soon."
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.