EXETER — The grounds of Wyoming Area High School and JFK Elementary across the street were devoid of students Monday, which wasn’t unexpected on Labor Day. But they will remain that way today, on what should be the fourth day of school, and likely until the end of the month.
Teachers of the Wyoming Area Education Association begin a strike today after more than three years of failed negotiations on a teachers contract that expired in August 2010. The union announced the strike in July, hoping nearly two-months notice would help provide an impetus for moving talks with the school board forward.
Wyoming Area Education Association President Melissa Dolman said that if there is no progress, teachers will not be returning to the classroom until Sept. 30.
Dolman said the last round of talks were held Thursday, and there was “some movement on the side of the (school) board” — the removal of a true wage freeze for the 2011-12 school year. But the board’s offer also eliminated percentage raises for four of the remaining years of the contract, she said.
“Really, all they did was shift money,” Dolman said.
At negotiations two weeks ago, the union proposed raises according to seniority steps ranging from 1.83 percent to 3.02 percent in each of the seven years. The district offered raises from 2.28 percent to 2.86 percent for five years, but not for the 2011-2012 school year, in which a wage freeze was proposed.
The teachers have proposed a seven-year contract and the district has proposed a six-year agreement.
Dolman said the union hopes to meet with district negotiators during the strike, but no talks have been scheduled.
“We did everything we felt was in our power to avoid this happening. It’s the last thing anyone wanted. But after four years, we felt we were left with no other alternative,” she said.
School district solicitor Jarret Ferentino, who is sitting on the district’s bargaining team, said the three major issues identified by the union were: contributing towards its members’ health insurance premiums, eliminating health trust language from the contract and a wage freeze for the 2011-12 school year.
“We offered what amounts to a 12-percent raise over a six-year contract, no premium sharing on their benefits and agreed to a step movement without payment in the 2011-12 school year. … The bottom line is, we’ve moved substantially and the union has not. … They are seeking higher wage increases than the 12 percent and have moved very little off their position in the last year,” Ferentino said.
He also noted that while the union points out that administrators received raises, administrators also agreed to a pay freeze for one year and premium sharing.
Ferentino said he doesn’t see what a strike will do for teachers. “It’s not going to free up any more money,” he said.
The union has warned of the costs to the district associated with a strike. Members of the support staff will need to be brought in on the make-up days at the end of the year. Those employees are guaranteed to work a specific number of days in their contract and will likely require overtime.
Under state law, teachers may strike twice in one school year.
The first strike must end in time for students to get 180 school days in by June 15 or by the last day of the scheduled school year. If the first strike threatens that deadline, both sides must go into mandatory, non-binding arbitration. If a second strike is called after arbitration, it must end in time for students to get 180 school days by June 30.