Fear of cuts in state funding stalling teacher negotiations
Bethel Park teachers on strike in 2010 at Independence Middle School. They still do not have a contract, and budget cuts are hampering negotiations.
Share with others:
Traditionally, teacher contract negotiations are tedious processes that sometimes pit teachers unions against school directors and can involve endless rounds of posturing and maneuvering that, in some instances, erupt into work stoppages.
Yet in the past, the opposing sides in most districts have found ways to eventually meet in the middle and settle on multiyear contracts that satisfy both sides within a reasonable amount of time.
In the past year, an unseen but influential third party has been at the bargaining table -- Gov. Tom Corbett. District and union officials say the nearly $900 million in cuts to education funding in 2011 and a proposed maintenance of that funding level for 2012 has made their budgets too tight to offer teachers raises or other perks.
Mr. Corbett in public comments has suggested that teachers should take pay freezes or cuts in order for districts to balance their budgets, but he has not imposed any such measures through state legislation, instead leaving what district officials consider the "dirty work" to them.
"If the state is going to shirk their duty, which they are doing, where else do we go?" Woodland Hills superintendent Walter Calinger asked.
Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said in an email that school districts and teachers have to make tough decisions to "ensure they are spending within their means." He said declining revenues at all levels of government are forcing the issue.
In reference to teacher negotiations, "It comes down to priorities: We must ensure that priorities are aligned to do what is in the best interest of students, not adults," Mr. Eller wrote.
The tight state budgets and fear of similar budgets in the future has made it nearly impossible for some districts to settle contracts, with school officials claiming state funding cuts mean they have no money and teachers unions arguing there should be a limit to the number of concessions they are asked to take.
In addition, some district negotiators say they are hesitant to enter into any multiyear contracts for fear of what the future holds for education funding in Pennsylvania.
"I'm not willing to go out more than the next year," said William Andrews, a longtime school solicitor who is handling negotiations for the Steel Valley School District, where teachers have been without a contract since June.
Mr. Andrews said he has given that advice to all of his school clients, saying that taking things year by year gives district officials the opportunity to see what the governor's budget will be for each coming year and to watch for any changes in the Legislature that could make school funding more stable.
Mr. Calinger concedes he is hesitant to settle a contract with the district's teachers because of future state budget uncertainty.
"I have two levels of hesitancy. I need to know what's happening for this year and then I need to know for the next two years," Mr. Calinger said.
Walter Michalski, a staff representative for the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers, said contract negotiations have been cyclical over the years with periods when districts wanted to settle short-term contracts of two or three years and then later, longer-term contracts of five to six years. But currently, it's difficult to get any commitment.
The slowdown in negotiations means a handful of local districts represented by the Pennsylvania State Education Association have been working under contracts that expired in either June or August of last year, including Cornell, Shaler Area, Steel Valley, Wilkinsburg, Woodland Hills and the 366 teachers who are members of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit Education Association in Allegheny County, California Area in Washington County and Ambridge Area in Beaver County.
Teachers in Bethel Park, who struck in November 2010 and are represented by the PFT, have been working without a new contract since their previous pact expired in June 2010. The two sides started the fact-finding process March 20, and the report is expected to be completed by the end of this month. The two sides then will vote to accept or reject it.
Shaler Area teachers and district officials participated in the fact-finding process in the fall after failing to reach a contract agreement in August, but both sides rejected the fact-finder's report in November. Negotiations are continuing.
The Mars Area school board voted recently to ask for fact-finding as it approaches the June 30 expiration of the one-year contract the union agreed to last year.
The list of local districts with unresolved contracts is expected to grow in the coming months as more contracts expire in June or August. Those districts in Allegheny County include Allegheny Valley, Duquesne, East Allegheny, Hampton, McKeesport, Pine-Richland and South Allegheny, according to PSEA spokesman Butch Santicola. Mr. Michalski said the PFT has no local districts with contracts expiring this year.
Additionally, another 10 districts in Butler, Beaver, Washington, Westmoreland and Fayette counties have contracts expiring this year.
Although union officials are frustrated with the lack of progress in their talks, there are not widespread threats of strikes as have occurred in past years, even in such districts as Bethel Park, which has a history of teacher strikes.
Matthew Howard, assistant to the superintendent for finance and operations in Bethel Park, said he thinks that's because unions realize districts are strapped for cash.
"The negotiations process is difficult for both parties. There is less of a pot because of the state cuts. I think the teachers understand," Mr. Howard said.
"We do explore other [non-financial] areas of negotiations. But in the end, it does become a money issue and that's the fight we have to fight," Mr. Howard said.
Mr. Howard pointed to health care costs as a major expense on which the district is focusing. "The rate increase this year is 5.5 percent, and that is a substantial number, a substantial increase," he said.
Shaler Area school board President James Giel said all contracts eventually come down to financial issues.
"We've talked about everything else, but now we are down to wages and benefits, and that's tough," Mr. Giel said.
He said he doesn't expect a contract settlement in Shaler Area "before the end of the year or the beginning of next year when we really see where we are in a budget standpoint."
Mr. Giel said his board is cognizant of the fact that 70 percent of the district's residents don't have children in school.
Diann Smith, president of Bethel Park Federation of Teachers, said the governor's cut to education funding "has a massive impact on negotiations."
"Never before have we had to deal with the district being so concerned with what the state is going to do. We just feel like we are spinning our wheels for two years," Ms. Smith said. "Before, [negotiation] was a local issue. Now, it is no longer a local issue."
Ms. Smith said her membership "understands the cuts and we really have reduced our proposal," but she said she finds the district negotiators reluctant to agree on any issues because of the fear of what will happen with the state budget.
"We can't just keep saying let's wait and see what happens. This is the third year we are negotiating," said Ms. Smith, who pointed out that negotiations started a year before the contract expired.
In Woodland Hills, about 250 members of the Woodland Hills Education Association held an informational picketing session last month outside of a board workshop meeting. Despite the public display, union president Lisa Harris said she had no comment on negotiations.
Working under the terms of an old contract means that teachers don't get raises or step increases -- hikes in salary that come automatically with years of service or increased education, Mr. Calinger said.
However, the health care plan also is frozen, and for many unions, that is likely an advantage, Mr. Calinger said, "as most places negotiating a new contract will call for greater employee participation in payment for health care."
In Woodland Hills, not having to pay step increases saves the district $1 million annually, Mr. Calinger said.
The superintendent said he is looking for money to keep full-day kindergarten because the governor's proposed budget has cut the $100 million in accountability block grants that districts such as Woodland Hills used to finance kindergarten programs.
As a result, Mr. Calinger said, the only way to come up with money to give raises to teachers is to furlough some teachers and increase class sizes or to take the matter to a referendum and ask voters if they want to increase taxes to provide teacher raises. Because that option must be placed on the ballot, it can't be exercised until 2012.
The situation is similar in Steel Valley, Mr. Andrews said.
"Steel Valley has absolutely no money in the bank. There is no way for them to get it other than through a voter referendum. I think the teachers realize that," Mr. Andrews said.
Steel Valley Education Association president Kevin Tomasic responded in an email: "The teachers and the district are working together to come to an agreement that is feasible for both sides. Everyone involved understands the financial constraints put on the district because of the state budget cuts to education."
Union officials said they believe they can deal with the financial aspects of the state budget, but the resistance by school officials to commit to contract issues because of fear of the future is making it impossible to get a contract settlement.
"I think the greatest concern at the state level is the question of how much do they value traditional public education," Mr. Michalski, of the PFT, said.
District officials said it's hard to formulate a budget without a teachers contract, which would lock in salary and benefit costs.
Last year, Mr. Calinger budgeted for no increase in salaries and he's done the same in this year's preliminary budget draft. "But if everyone goes up steps [next year], it could cost $2 million," he said.
Mr. Calinger said he believes the way to settle the contract without furloughing teachers is for members of the teachers union to take enough concessions to save jobs.
"It calls for people to protect their brothers and sisters," he said.
In Bethel Park, Mr. Howard said the board can draw from its reserve fund if a contract is settled after the budget is approved and it calls for more funding than is included for salaries or benefits.
But, he warned, "if you start tapping into your fund balance on a regular basis, in a couple of years, you don't have a fund balance."
Mr. Andrews said he has seen some districts refuse to use the fund balance for teacher salaries for that reason. "If you spend the fund balance for the teachers contract, down the road what do you do?"
School and union officials said there are no official deadlines for settling contracts, which means negotiations could continue to drag on.
"I don't think a time frame can be established because we have two parties who have to agree and it's very difficult to do," Mr. Howard said. "There are no deadlines at this point. No strike votes, no notices and teachers continue to come to work."
First Published April 12, 2012 2:21 pm