East Allegheny teachers go on strike today

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Despite last-ditch efforts to resolve contract disputes before the would-be first day of school, East Allegheny teachers are still on track to strike this morning.

School directors and the East Allegheny Education Association remain at an impasse, chiefly over salaries for the district’s 133 teachers, who have worked without a contract since June 30, 2012. 

Superintendent Roger A. D'Emidio approached union President Cheryl Ihnat on Friday “to try and come to an understanding to reach a settlement to avoid a strike,” a district spokeswoman said in a statement released that night. Board members negotiated with the union via a mediator from 5 to 8:30 p.m., but the parties failed to reach an agreement. 

“The board, in my opinion, worked as hard as it could … so the kids didn’t get caught in the crossfire,” said Michael Palombo, an attorney representing the district.  

The statement said the board would remain “open to continue negotiations on Monday morning at 9 a.m. if the Association so desires.” Ms. Ihnat said she did not wish to meet because she was told that the board was “not going to budge.”

Also Friday, while the mediator was presenting the union’s refusal to the board, the association “left the session,“ according to the district, Ms. Ihnat took issue with that characterization, saying she shook the superintendent’s hand, and it was her understanding the meeting had ended.

“Once again, we feel they’re bargaining in bad faith, putting out erroneous information and really hoodwinking the community into thinking we're the bad guys again,” she said. 

The district has proposed a five-year contract in which teachers’ wages would be frozen the first two school years, 2012-13, 2013-14 In the 2014-15 school year, teachers would receive $1,100. During the 2015-16 school year and again in the 2016-17 school year, teachers would climb one step up the pay scale and those at the top would receive $800. 

East Allegheny teachers follow a 16-step scale, which generally means it takes 16 years to reach the top. Pay freezes effectively halt a step movement.

Ms. Ihnat said that the union agreed to pay freezes in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, but still wants to go up a step in the 2014-15 school year. In the meeting on Friday, the parties discussed a 2.5-year freeze, but the school board wasn’t interested in that option, she said.

According to a statement on its website, the district is dealing with a more than $1 million deficit, largely due to pension and health care costs, stagnant state funding and charter school costs.“This contributes to the difficulty in resolving the contract impasse,” it says in part.

School directors have said they will not raise taxes again in the district to fund teachers pay increases. The union maintains that the board has been fiscally irresponsible and should have been prepared for them.

Mr. Palombo said that criticism, “unmasked, is really that the district ought have been raising taxes all along.”

“The problem is there are so many challenges that draw upon that money, and the tax base is already so challenged financially, as well,” he said. 

The district’s plan also includes $70 per month for health care contributions for 2012-13 and 2013-14. In the third year, they proposed $70 per month and 50 percent of the premium increase, capped at $150. The fourth year would work similarly, using the previous year’s monthly contribution as a base. The final year of the contract also would work similarly, but with a $170 cap.

The 1,700-student district serves East McKeesport, North Versailles, Wilmerding and Wall. It also serves some middle and high school students from Duquesne.

The district statement said parents will be reminded of the strike via the district’s ParentLink system.

Residents can check for updates at the websites for the school district, http://www.eawildcats.net/site/default.aspx?PageID=1, and the uinion, https://sites.google.com/site/eaea4students/home.

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. First Published September 2, 2014 12:06 AM

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