Teachers in Shaler Area approve new contract

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The Shaler Area School District's teacher strike ended Wednesday, when the teachers union and the district reached an accord on health care contributions and workload and agreed to enter binding arbitration on the union's request for salary scale increases.

And for parents of the district's more than 4,600 students who will head back to class Friday, the end of the seven-day work stoppage that delayed the start of school couldn't come soon enough.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bonnie Evans, 39, of Millvale was picking up her 9-year-old daughter, Skylar, from the Northern Area Boys and Girls Club on Farragut Street, which scrambled to put together a daytime program for local children after the strike was announced.

"I would have had to really struggle," said Ms. Evans, who works part time for a vending company. "There was nowhere to put her."

Nanci Woods of Shaler, who was loading up groceries at the Shop 'n Save on Babcock Boulevard, works in the service industry and has three boys between the ages of the 8 and 13 in the district.

She said she had a tough time getting her sons to sports practices in the middle of the day with school out.

By law, the teachers could have stayed off the job until Sept. 24, but agreed to be back in the classroom today to prepare for the students' return Friday.

The Shaler teachers had worked without a new contract since August 2011 and followed through on their threat to strike the first day of classes, which had been set for Sept. 3, if there was no new agreement in place. The district serves Shaler, Etna, Millvale and Reserve.

The two sides negotiated during the work stoppage with the help of a state mediator, and during sessions Monday and Tuesday nights they were able to work out the details of a new contract after coming to a tentative agreement on two of the final three sticking points -- workload and health care contributions.

The union's membership of 390 teachers overwhelmingly approved the agreement Wednesday morning.

The school board voted 7-2 to ratify it at a special meeting Wednesday night, with board members Mary Lou Dixon and John Fries opposed.

The agreement is retroactive to Aug. 15, 2011, and expires the same date in 2016.

Because the two sides were at a stalemate on salary, they agreed to go to binding arbitration.

"The school board brought up binding arbitration when we still had five or six issues on the table. At first we weren't comfortable with it with all of those outstanding issues. But when it came down to one issue, then we were willing to agree," said Melissa Ravas, president of the Shaler Area Education Association.

The agreement on health care calls for increased contributions from teachers on both plans offered by the district, which include an HMO and a PPO plan.

Superintendent Wesley Shipley said a panel of three arbitrators will oversee the binding arbitration process.

Each side chooses one arbitrator, and the third is a neutral arbitrator. The district and union each will submit to the panel a final, best offer, providing background and other evidence and oral testimony.

Mr. Shipley said the process is expected to be completed within 60 days.

"They needed to get back to school," said Sue Goetz, executive director of the Northern Boys and Girls Club.

"They're bored," she said of the children playing video games at the club Wednesday afternoon. "I feel for the parents, the kids and the teachers."

The club runs an after-school program during the school year and a day program, but it had been hard-pressed to organize and staff for another round of activities on short notice, she said.

Among the roughly 35 children between the ages of 5 and 13 who were at the club Wednesday, there were mixed reactions about the end of their extended break and a return to classes.

Mikall Tarrant, 10, a fifth-grader at Shaler Area Elementary, couldn't wait until Friday. "I get to wear new school clothes," she said.

However, Cassidy Hoffman, a 17-year-old senior at Shaler Area High who was working at the Boys and Girls Club, said many of her friends assumed they would have until Sept. 24 to get ready for school.

"I'm not ready," Cassidy said. "I still have to do my [calculus] packet for math. ... Everybody's confused."

Her co-worker, 15-year-old Emily Rhodes, also said the uncertainty caused some havoc for students but she was glad to see it resolved.

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Lexi Belculfine contributed. Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com or412-263-3909 First Published September 11, 2013 5:30 PM


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