Blackhawk teachers await labor ruling


Blackhawk teachers return to their classrooms today without a settled contract, awaiting a ruling on whether the school board’s decision to revoke a contract in February was fair.

After “early bird” negotiations last summer, the school board ratified a contract, 7-2, in September. The board experienced significant changeover in December, with four seats changing hands. At a public board meeting in late February, the new board voted, 6-2, to revoke the collective bargaining agreement, citing concerns about legality and a greater than expected cost.

The Blackhawk Education Association then filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and is awaiting a ruling.

For now, teachers are being paid in accordance with the old contract.

“It’s all in the hands of the attorneys,” said superintendent Melanie Kerber, who began in that role July 1.

The district is in northwestern Beaver County and encompasses the communities of Chippewa, Darlington borough and township, Enon Valley in Lawrence County, Patterson Heights, Patterson Township, South Beaver and West Mayfield.

While it is unusual for a school board to retract a contract, Ms. Kerber said beginning a school year without a settled contract is not.

“They have started status quo before and like in many districts have worked without a contract,” she said.

Throughout Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Washington and Westmoreland counties, more than 20 districts are entering the new school year with expired contracts.

 
School districts that have not reached contracts with their teacher unions

James Craft, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Katz School of Business who specializes in human resources and labor relations said the Blackhawk case is “extremely unusual.” He had never heard of a comparable situation in which a board retracted a contract that had been negotiated and approved.

Though proof of extreme financial duress, such as pending bankruptcy, could lead to a contract being renegotiated, in general he said he believes it will be hard for the district to justify its retraction.

In a response brief to the labor practice complaint that was filed last month, the district contended that the contract was invalid because a “lame duck” board ratified it after union leaders misled the board into settling early.

The district claims there was no urgency to settle a contract, but the union pushed for it, expecting the board’s membership to change significantly and hoping to secure a more favorable contract with the outgoing board.

Blackhawk Education Association president Jarrod McCowin said he was motivated to start negotiations early because prior contract negotiations had run late, and he wanted to get it out of the way before the school year began.

“They just keep trying to paint it as secretive, sneaky and corrupt,” said Mr. McCowin. “We went to great pains to make sure this was done by the book.”

Dean Fleischman, one of two school board members who voted against the contract when it was approved in September, said he was standing up for taxpayers because the cost associated with raises set out in the revoked contract was unsustainable.

He emphasized that his stance had never been anti-teacher but a reaction to the fact that “the contract was not done legally or ethically, and the numbers don’t add up.”

Comparing himself to Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Mr. Fleischman said, “Someone has to stand up for Tom Robinson.”


Stephanie McFeeters: localnews@post-gazette.com.

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