EXETER — It’s been 36 years since Wyoming Area teachers went on strike, but they got support Tuesday from a man who not only was there in 1977 but also who showed up Tuesday with what some dubbed a “vintage sign” from that long-ago picket line.
“I kept it in the cellar,” retired teacher Charlie Burns said as he stood outside Montgomery Avenue Elementary School while teachers walked the picket line for the first day of what could potentially be a month-long strike. “It’s part of my history.”
Union leaders insist the school board pushed them into a strike by failing to come to an affordable agreement after nearly four years of talks, even though, as lead negotiator John Holland said, the two sides are a “whisker away” from settling.
District lead negotiator attorney John Dean counters that the board has made multiple major concessions and increased overall pay raises in its last offer, to the point it “cannot afford any more.”
“I don’t buy it,” Holland said as he walked the picket line outside the district Secondary Center in Exeter early Tuesday. He cited two fact-finder reports requested over the last few years by the board. “It’s not what our numbers demonstrate and not what the fact finders found,” he said, adding the board rejected proposals by both fact finders.
The strike disrupts more than family plans, student education and teacher pay. Holland and union President Melissa Dolman noted trade unions working on renovations at Montgomery Elementary refused to cross a picket line there. At Montgomery, teachers walked past new steps and an unfinished handicap access ramp outside the school’s front doors, yellow tape blocking most of the path into the building, no trade workers in sight.
Along with slogans such as “Quality education deserves quality pay” and “Invest in students and teachers,” union members had signs saying “Stop the parent tax.” A new website set up by the union, wateachers.com, argues “Hundreds of local families will be saddled with the additional cost of securing child care during the strike,” estimating a family could pay as much as $900 for three weeks of day care and babysitters if the strike lasts that long.
By state law, the strike can last until it endangers the district’s ability to complete 180 days of school by June 15, at which point the state would seek a court injunction forcing teachers to return to work. The exact date would be determined by the state, calculating how many holiday and vacation days could be used to make up for time lost to the strike, but Holland acknowledged it could last about four weeks. Barring a settlement, he added, “we’re here for the duration.”
The union can strike a second time, but that strike must end in time to complete 180 days by Jun 30. In fact, unions often stage a strike near the start of the school year to maximize the potential length. Waiting until after some holidays have already passed means there are fewer chances to make up for days lost to a strike, thus shortening how long teachers can walk the line before bumping up to that “June 15” deadline.
The principal sticking point at Wyoming Area, where teachers have worked under the terms of an expired contract since August 2010, is pay, with a particular focus on what happens retroactively for the 2011-12 school year. Holland and Dolman contend the board only has changed its offers by shuffling the same money around over the course of its proposed six-year contract, without offering any actual changes in salary raises during recent negotiations.
Dean insisted that is not true. He said the board dropped an effort to get teachers to pay part of their insurance premium, and that more recently the board dropped a demand that teachers accept a “true pay freeze” for 2011-12.
The term has proven to be a frequent point of misunderstanding. The crux lies in the traditional system of “step” and “column” pay increases typically built into teacher contracts. For a set number of years, teachers are guaranteed annual raises known as “step” raises.
They are also guaranteed raises every time they achieve a set levels of post-graduate education, known as “column” raises.
Dean said teachers received a step raise for the 2010-11 school year despite the fact that the contract expired at the start of that year. The “true freeze” proposal required teachers to completely forego any step or column raises for 2011-12.
Dean said at least three other area districts — Crestwood, Northwest Area and Mahanoy Area in Schuylkill County — hammered out recent deals with true freezes.
Wyoming Area teachers balked, noting such a freeze impacts earnings for the rest of a teacher’s career because it takes a year longer to reach the top step. The number of steps varies from district to district; the expired Wyoming Area contract had 15 steps.
When the board withdrew the “true pay freeze” request, it offered to grant the 2011-12 step increase on paper, but not in cash, asking the union to forgo the actual retroactive pay for one year. So a teacher who was on, say, step 10 in 2010-11 would be officially on step 11 in 2011-12, but would get no retroactive pay for that raise. In 2012-13, that teacher would be on step 12 and get the raises required for both step 11 and 12.
The move would mean teachers delay getting a step raise for 2011-12, but would get a bigger raise for 2012-13. “that move would save the district about $260,000,” Dean said.
Dean said at the last negotiations the union asked the board to “tweak” the offer, and the board agreed to modestly increases annual raises. The upshot was to increase the total raises across the six-year offer from 12.25 percent to 12.5 percent, Dean said, but the union rejected the proposal.
For Burns, who retired in 2006 after teaching in the district since 1974, the new strike has echos of that distant picket line. Then as now, the union had negotiated for about three years with no real movement by the board, he said, and decided to strike in September of 1977. The first strike lasted about a month, with a second strike staged in February.
There were two big differences, Burns noted. Back then, state law did not mandate a strike end before threatening the 180 school day rule, and the year ended up being shortened by 11 days.
In the long run, Burns added, that impacted the amount of his pension, though only by a small amount.
The other difference: “Back then my pay was about $11,000,” he said. “When I started I made $7,100.”
Born in Wyoming, graduated from the district and with two children who are alumni, Burns said the teachers deserve support now. “These are good people.”