The Northern Area Boys and Girls Club in Millvale expects to be filled today with students who were displaced from their schools because of the Shaler Area teachers strike.
"My phone has been ringing off the hook with parents wanting to know if we can take their kids," club director Suzanne Goetz said Tuesday, which was supposed to be the first day of classes in the Shaler district, which serves about 4,600 students in Shaler, Etna, Millvale and Reserve.
Ms. Goetz had recently closed her summer day program and was preparing for an after-school program with the start of school. But when the teachers union called a strike, she quickly started planning a day program to run for the duration. On Tuesday, she had about 24 students and today she's expecting the number to be closer to 40.
Shaler's 380 teachers decided to strike Tuesday after a five-hour negotiation session on Monday failed to yield a contract agreement.
According to the state Department of Education, the strike must end in time for students to return to class on Sept. 24. That is the date that would allow the district to complete the school year by June 15 as required by state law.
The teachers have worked without a new contract since August 2011 and announced in June they would strike if there was no new agreement by the first day of school.
The two sides will be back at the bargaining table tonight at 6, and Melissa Ravas, president of the Shaler Area Education Association, said the talks will move forward only if the district brings forth a new offer.
She said the union made an offer last week and expected to discuss it on Monday but no such discussions took place. "We're hoping for someone to respond other than to say 'no,' " Mrs. Ravas said.
Superintendent Wesley Shipley, in a statement on the district website, said the negotiating team "explored solutions which exceeded the authority provided by the entire school board" but were still unable to meet the union's demands for salary and health care contributions. Those two items, in addition to workload issues, remain the sticking points in the negotiations.
In an interview, Mr. Shipley said there was a "substantial gap" between the parties with regard to salary and that it would be "shortsighted" not to consider the effect it would have on taxpayers. "You can't have a contract that would totally deplete [the district's] fund balance," Mr. Shipley said. Negotiating sessions are also set for Sept. 9 and 16.
Statistics kept by the state Department of Education show that Shaler's 2012-13 average teacher salary of $56,362 is the seventh lowest among the 43 districts in the county. The countywide average for 2012-13 was $67,862. According to fact-finding reports from 2011 and 2013, salaries for Shaler teachers range from $39,359 for a beginning teacher with a bachelor's degree to $86,852 for a teacher with a master's degree at the top of the 19-step salary scale.
Mrs. Ravas said picketing will continue daily at the Shaler Area Middle School, which also houses the administrative complex, on Mount Royal Boulevard for the duration of the strike. In addition, teachers will not perform extra-curricular duties, but the superintendent said the majority of coaches are not teachers. Administrators have been assigned to each sport and activity and are acting as liaisons with booster organizations and associations as needed. A Friday home high school football game is still scheduled.
Shaler Area was one of three Pennsylvania districts to strike Tuesday. The others are Wyoming Area in Luzerne County and Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County. The last local teacher strikes were in the fall of 2010 in the Bethel Park, Moon Area and Allegheny Valley districts. Bethel Park, where the previous contract expired in June 2010, is still negotiating and is currently involved in a fact-finding process.
At the boys and girls club, Ms. Goetz is busy trying to hire enough staff to handle the number of requests she is getting.
Other parents are making other plans. Sandy Giannuzzi said she will likely end up watching a working friend's child because she is home during the day. Mrs. Giannuzzi's son, Nick, 10, was supposed to start fifth grade this year. Mrs. Giannuzzi, who previously taught in Catholic schools, is worried that the summer "brain drain" will be far worse this year if students are out of school for an additional three weeks.
She said she is "more sympathetic to the district's side than the teachers," but that she hopes "both come to an agreement soon and it can come to a good end."
Shaler resident Elainka Jay, a retired art teacher from Moon, whose husband, Gary, is a retired art teacher from Shaler Area, said she believes the teachers are highly skilled professionals, many of whom have advanced degrees and that they deserve to be appropriately compensated. "I think a lot of parents don't understand the expertise involved in teaching," Mrs. Jay said.
However, she said, health benefits "is probably an area where teachers should give a little because everyone is paying that."
On Tuesday, J.C. Ferderbar, 12, and Darren Rasimczyk, 13, were riding their bikes and scooters in a shopping center parking lot next to the middle school, where they had been prepared to start classes.
"I really want to go back to school," J.C. said, explaining that he had attended orientation last week and got excited about meeting his middle school teammates and teachers.
"We miss all of our friends and stuff," Darren said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org. Molly Born contributed. First Published September 4, 2013 4:15 AM