Teachers unions respond to Corbett's freeze request
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Will public school teachers agree to the pay freeze requested by Gov. Tom Corbett?
Pennsylvania State Education Association president James Testerman weighed in Wednesday with a letter to the locals of the state's largest teachers union.
"I encouraged them to enter into discussion with their school boards about a pay freeze or other cost-saving measures to maintain their class sizes and academic programs," he said in a news release.
But Ted Kirsch, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Pennsylvania, said, "Why is it they're (Corbett administration) just asking teachers to make sacrifices when we have a source of potential income (Marcellus Shale) that's been totally ignored? ...
"There is a budget crisis. Let's look at all the possibilities. How do you say on the one hand, all of these contributors who gave to my campaign, I'm not going to ask them to make sacrifices, but I'm going to ask teachers to make sacrifices? Not fair."
In his state budget proposal on March 8, Mr. Corbett recommended cutting spending on K-12 education by more than $1 billion. He estimated that a statewide freeze of teacher pay could save districts about $400 million.
While teacher pay freezes are unusual, they are not unheard of. In April last year, following a four-day strike a few months earlier, Penn Hills teachers and the school district agreed to a five-year contract that called for a pay freeze, including forgoing step increases based on years of service.
More commonly, teachers agree to pay more for their health care.
Mr. Testerman noted that some locals already have agreed to economic concessions to maintain class sizes and academic programs.
"Such cooperation can help to preserve the academic gains made in Pennsylvania's public schools over the last decade," he said.
He said the union has "serious concerns" about some of the governor's proposals and hopes to prevent the proposed $1 billion cut in education funding from taking place, but "we also realize that tough economic times have hit many of our public school districts."
The issue of teacher pay freezes or other concessions to save district money will be resolved one local at a time, either in negotiations in open contracts or through efforts to reopen existing contracts.
John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, which last year reached a five-year contract that includes some merit pay provisions, said he could not in good conscience ask teachers to take a pay freeze.
However, he added, "That doesn't mean we don't want to work very carefully to help reduce the budget crisis we have in Pennsylvania."
In the region, Butch Santicola, spokesman for the PSEA, said it's too early to tell how the locals will react.
But he said this will be a particularly challenging time for negotiations.
"There's no question about it. It's going to take a lot of patience. It's going to take a lot of creativity," he said.
Currently, three districts in Allegheny County -- Allegheny Valley, Bethel Park and Moon Area -- have had teacher strikes this school year but have not yet resolved their contracts.
In addition, negotiations are continuing in three others in Allegheny County where contracts expired in 2010: Clairton, Riverview and West Allegheny.
January marked the beginning of talks in some other districts where contracts expire in 2011. Among them are Cornell, Hampton, McKeesport Area, North Hills, Northgate, Shaler Area, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Wilkinsburg, Woodland Hills. Attorney Jack Cambest, who is solicitor for a number of districts, including Moon Area, said he views Mr. Testerman's remarks as "a very positive move by the unions to recognize the climate that we're dealing with in both our economic climate and as far as state and federal funding is concerned."
Mr. Cambest said some districts are starting to rethink whether they can afford offers that were on the table on March 8 when Mr. Corbett made his proposal.
If proposed state legislation permitting teacher furloughs for economic reasons passes, Mr. Cambest said, "I think that will affect not only districts in negotiations but districts with existing contracts.
"Do I lose 30 teachers or accept a wage freeze? I think there's a good possibility that contracts may be reopened."
First Published March 17, 2011 12:00 am