MANDATA - Line Mountain's board of directors and its teachers' union are planning three meetings this summer to address an expired contract before the school year begins.

School board directors remain optimistic the district can avoid a strike, despite the teachers' union request for a contract the district says it cannot afford, directors said in a release Thursday.

But a representative with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) said the press release doesn't tell the whole truth and the district is forcing the union's hand.

Line Mountain teachers have been working on an expired contract since June 2012. The Line Mountain Education Association (LMEA) has previously threatened to strike and will continue "working to the rule," a position the union adopted Sept. 30, meaning teachers work during the contracted 7 1/2 hours and nothing more.

"The association has been unwilling to compromise on the district's issues and are demanding that the school board provide their members with unobtainable financial increases," said attorney Benjamin L. Pratt of CGA Law Firm, Harrisburg, in the statement written on behalf of the board of directors.

'Misinformation'

Mark McDade, of the PSEA, said the district's press release is "full of misinformation."

"It does not reflect where we are in the bargaining process. Its only purpose is to upset people rather than working toward an agreement," McDade said over the phone Friday.

He said it's unfortunate the board is more interested in playing politics than solving the contract issue at hand.

"They're the party that is holding this up," he said.

Salary, benefits

Among the contested issues are wage increases and health care plans.

Pratt said LMEA is demanding retroactive wage increases, which the board is unable to provide because it has no legal way to raise wages on concluded fiscal years.

"The school board is unable to hold monies earmarked for the teachers' wage increases from past budgets as new budgets and new needs for the students and the district arise with each new school year," said Pratt.

In addition to demanding impossible retroactive wage increases, Pratt said LMEA is asking for increases that would take salaries higher than what comparable local teachers earn.

Pratt said LMEA is also resisting directors' attempts to maintain reasonable rates of healthcare benefits.

"The school board is looking to modify the healthcare provision by instituting a deductible plan for the teachers," said Pratt. "This would free up funds for the district as well as provide protections to the association members through health savings accounts."

Pratt's statement indicates that if the district gives in to LMEA's demands, the district will become financially unstable.

McDade, however, gave a different perspective. He said the district lost approximately 10 teachers through attrition over the past three years, and those positions have not been filled.

"They're overall payroll has gone down significantly, and when you factor in those savings, the teachers' union proposal is more than affordable," he said.

"They could probably hire more people (with our proposal)," he added.

The district's statement said LMEA and the district have agreed on three meetings to be held during the summer to negotiate a new contract.

The first day of the 2014-15 school year is Sept. 2. If a new contract is not established by then, LMEA could strike.

A first-year teacher at Line Mountain makes a minimum of $32,838, and a teacher in his or her 17th year can make $63,582, plus receive a pension. Based on 2011-12 figures, Line Mountain teachers were paid an average of $48,259.

The state average for a classroom teacher in 2011-12 was $62,019, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Shamokin Area

Shamokin Area School District and its teachers are in a similar situation.

The Shamokin Area Education Association (SAEA) authorized the use of a strike in April, and the vote by union teachers passed "resoundingly," according to McDade.

Teachers have been working under the terms of an expired contract since June 30, 2013. Negotiations began in January and both sides have made proposals. The last session was held in early April.

It ended "abruptly," McDade said.

McDade said a meeting between Shamokin Area and SAEA is planned for later this summer.

The starting teacher's salary in the district is approximately $28,000, and the average salary for 2011-12 was $45,238.79. The annual cost for health care in 2013-14 is $15,240, according to a district audit.