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30-day window closes for Saucon Valley teachers to reconsider new contract

Published On: Mar 26 2014 05:10:46 AM CDT
Updated On: Mar 26 2014 04:29:29 PM CDT

The Saucon Valley teacher's union has rejected a contract agreement yet again.

HELLERTOWN, Pa. -

A 30-day window of opportunity for teachers in Saucon Valley School District to reconsider a new union contract slammed shut Tuesday night.

The window was opened by the school board, but the union's members did not change their minds.

"Today was the 30th day," said district superintendent Sandra Fellin. "At this time, we start from zero on both sides."

She stressed an offer of a retroactive pay increase for the teachers is now gone and won't be put back on the negotiating table.

She said that was made very clear to the Saucon Valley Education Association, the 185-member teachers union, when it was given 30 more days to accept a contract.

The teachers have been working without a new contract since June 2012.

On Feb. 24, members of the union rejected a tentative agreement that had been reached on Jan. 30 between the school district and their negotiating team.

On Feb. 25, the school board decided to give the union 30 more days to reconsider.

"Our understanding is they have removed their past negotiating team, which had been in place for the past two years, and are appointing all new negotiators from the union side," said Fellin. "We have yet to hear who they are or when they would like to meet again."

School board member Edward Inghrim, who is the board's chief contract negotiator, said he has no idea what's going to happen next.

"We are waiting to hear from the association," confirmed Atty. Mark Fitzgerald, the school district's solicitor. "The ball is completely in their court."

Fitzgerald said the union has to establish a new negotiating committee, inform the school district about who is on that committee and "articulate their position."

Inghrim said the negotiating team the union previously had in place "was a reasonable team." And he stressed it was the teacher's union that wanted an independent fact-finder brought in.

Inghrim said the 30-day period was for the union to reconsider the contract recommendations made by that fact-finder. He said the school board was willing to honor the fact-finder's recommendations for 30 days.

Inghrim said there are several options when contract negotiations meet a stalemate: fact-finding, non-binding arbitration and binding arbitration. He said the union asked for a fact-finder. He explained fact-finders look at both positions and come up with "a reasonable compromise."

Inghrim said the union has rejected the fact-finder's recommendations three times since last October.

Inghrim said the board voted to extend the offer for 30 days in hopes the union would reconsider and approve the contract, "which means they would have gotten raises for this year."

He said the fact-finder recommended pay raises for teachers should be retroactive until January. He said raises typically begin in September.

"Some people say that deal's off the table now, there's no raise this year," said Inghrim. However, he said when going back into negotiations "you never know what's going to happen...everything's on the table."

The board negotiator said teachers still are working under the contract that expired in 2012. "That only thing that doesn't occur is they don't get any raises. But everything else is basically in place."

Points of contention

Inghrim said salary is one major unresolved issue.

Another is that the school board is asking union members to pay a greater share of their health care benefits.

He said the board also wants to eliminate an open-ended incentive intended to spur early retirements.

"The way our contract is set up, there's no incentive to leave, so nobody leaves early. Ours doesn't have an end date. It goes on and on. The teachers basically wait until they're full pension eligible and then they say 'give me my retirement incentive.' Well, what's the incentive?"

He said another issue is that under the old contract, teachers got minimum raises of 5.4 percent a year for the first 14 years they worked in the district.

He said teachers also earn more for continuing education courses they complete. But he said many of those credits are earned for on-line courses "a high school student could take and pass, like Power Point in the Classroom or Word in the Classroom.

"What this board said was: 'If we're going to pay for this stuff, we want you to take a course that has some substance to it. Go to Lehigh and sit in a classroom and take a course.' That's one of the things they don't like."

"In Saucon Valley, we've had raises as high as 29 percent in one year," he said. "And we've had some teachers get 42 graduate credits in one year."

Inghrim said the median annual salary for a teacher in the district is about $70,000 a year. "The range is anywhere from $42,000 to $93,000."

He said that median has been dropping because a "tremendous" number of people have retired from the district in the last two or three years.

The status of union negotiations was not discussed during the school board's meeting Tuesday night.

2014-15 budget

Although very few of them were in the room, there was some good news for district taxpayers during the board meeting,

Fellin, who is retiring as superintendent in July, has been saying for months that she is determined to avoid a tax increase.

She believes Saucon Valley is the only school district in Pennsylvania that will be able to say it had no budget increase for six years in a row without cutting programs.

In January, the administration was $450,004 away from preparing a balanced budget for the 2014-15 school year. In her Tuesday night update to the school board, Fellin indicated that deficit has been whittled down to $144,951.

Rather than raising taxes, she is recommending that the board use some of the district's undesignated fund balance, which totals more than $3 million, to off-set that deficit.

And tapping that $3 million will mean no tax increase for the sixth year in a row.

"We'll have more than enough" remaining in the fund balance, said Fellin.

She said the administration also is suggesting $118,000 be taken out of the fund balance for one 84-passenger school bus, $7,500 for five new bus cameras and $8,000 for new sand for pool pumps.

Fellin said five teachers are retiring, but two will not be replaced - one in Saucon Valley Middle School and one in Saucon Valley Elementary School.

Two of the three teachers being replaced will go to the middle school and one to the elementary school.

The superintendent said classes for first through eighth grades will have between 20 and 23 students.

Board member Sandra Miller said she is "terribly uncomfortable" that a position is being taken away from the elementary school. She said middle school classes will have fewer students than elementary school classes.

Miller said seventh and eighth grade classes will have only 20 or 21 students, but kindergarten through third grades will have as many as 23 - and might end up having even more..

"That is not the way I would distribute our staff," said Miller. "It sure feels like we're moving away from focusing on small class sizes at elementary and putting the focus on middle school."

Board president Michael Karabin told the superintendent: "You have my full support in what you are projecting at this point.

"I have confidence in our elementary school teachers to teach that amount of children."

The preliminary budget totals $41.6 million.

The district's administration will continue to work and make adjustments in preparation for board adoption of a final budget in June.

Northampton Community College

Dr. Mark Erickson, president of Northampton Community College, attended the school board meeting to request an increase in financial support from Saucon Valley for the 2014-15 school year.

"I'm here today to respectfully request your continued support and a slight increase in what we're looking for next year," said Erickson. "It's one of best investments you'll make. I see it at work absolutely every day."

The school district now contributes $265,414 a year to the college. The college is asking the school board to increase that contribution to $268,285 - $2,871 more a year.

The school board will vote on that request next month.

Erickson said 282 Saucon Valley High School graduates enrolled in Northampton Community College last fall.

The school board also will appoint a trustee to Northampton Community College at its next meeting on April 8 - and it may be a current school board member.