WA teachers back on strike

By Jon O’Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com

April 15, 2014

EXETER — Wyoming Area School District teachers ended a special meeting Tuesday night by unzipping their jackets to reveal T-shirts, a little worn from the last round, emblazoned “WAEA on Strike.”

The demonstration followed the School Board’s unanimous rejection, with two members absent, of a contract recommended by an impartial arbiter earlier this month.

The Wyoming Area Education Association, the district’s teachers union, had notified the district it would be striking for one day today, should the board reject the contract. The one-day stint follows a 23-day strike at the beginning of the school year.

Board members John Marianacci and Deanna Farrell were not at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Wyoming Area teachers have been working under the terms of an old contract, which expired in August 2010, pending the passage of a new pact.

After mandatory non-binding arbitration, Ralph Colflesh of the American Arbitration Association, recommended what union President Melissa Dolman called, “the lesser of two evils,” the union’s proposed contract.

But School Board President Estelle Campenni said the arbiter’s report, the union’s response in calling the contract “the best deal in town” and the threat of a strike all came as a surprise and a disappointment to the board.

Both the board and the union have the right to reject the arbiter’s decision. State law requires the district to complete the school year by June 30. Counting snow days and the first strike, another full-on strike is unlikely to happen.

The crux of the disagreement lies in a retroactive wage freeze included in the district’s contract for the 2011-12 school year, Campenni said. That wage freeze would stall between $1,600 and $1,800 paid to each teacher for that school year, or between $133 and $150 per month.

“That is the primary issue that divides us,” Campenni said.

With the wage freeze included, the district avoids a general fund deficit, the board maintains.

If the district accepts the union’s contract, the anticipated general fund shortfall for the district will be about $1.2 million, attorney Jack Dean, the board’s special council handling the contract, said during the meeting.

A general fund balance, about $4 million, has been a point of contention for the union, which argues the district can, in fact, afford the step wage increase. But Campenni quoted from the arbiter’s report saying the money, made possible through bonding for construction projects and federal stimulus grants, likely is restricted, non-recurring and does not accurately represent the district’s working budget.

The money also is the only thing preventing Wyoming Area from becoming a distressed district, Campenni said.

Dolman also took a line from the arbiter’s report and said the board’s argument was unprecedented and the stepped wage increase will not send the district spiraling into the red. “What we’ve asked for is moderate compared to the other school districts (in our area),” Dolman said.

The school board long has argued that taxes must be raised beyond the state-allowed limit if the board was to meet the union’s demands.

About 250 teachers, students, parents and taxpayers filled the rear wing of the auditorium, spilling into the hallways and into main section.

After the board made its decision, and teachers marched out in a huff, two Wyoming Area 10th-graders, Alee Pettit and Kayla Wedlock, met with their parents in the lobby and made plans for a sleepover. No school today, after all.

“I think they’re both at fault,” Pettit said. “The teachers should take a pay freeze. Their job is to teach, not to get a raise every year. When they go to be teachers, the should know (they might have) to do that.”

Wedlock blamed the school board for the conflict that has lasted four years. She and her father agree the arbiter’s decision should speak for itself and the school board should follow his recommendation as a neutral party.

“And then they just reject the end result,” Wedlock said.