MCA teachers picket Wednesday, tonight
MOUNT CARMEL - Mount Carmel Area School District teachers picketed Wednesday night's contract negotiation meeting and will be doing the same again at tonight's regularly scheduled meeting at the junior-senior high school.
Joe Varano, teacher and Mount Carmel Area Education Association president, described the pickets as "informational" and a way to call attention to the fact that the union has been working under an expired contract since June 2012 and has been working toward a "reasonable and balanced resolution" with the school board since January 2012.
Varano pointed out that MCA teachers are some of the lowest paid teachers in the state: the district ranked 489th in the 2011-12 school year with an average salary of $43,834.
"We have been patient, knowing the complexity of the process, and have continued to provide a professional, high-quality educational program to our students. However, frustration is growing among our teachers because of the lack of progress at the bargaining table with the school board," he said.
'Thank a teacher'
At the picket Wednesday night, nearly 90 of the district's 113 teachers marched past the window of the meeting room where representatives of the board and the union were meeting.
The teachers were all holding signs. Among the messages were: "If you can read this, thank a teacher," "You can't put students first if you put teachers last" and "Two years is too long."
Keith Fourspring, a technology education teacher, was holding a sign with the simplest message: "Waiting."
"We want to get a fair deal and settle the contract so we can move on," he said.
Contract negotiations began nearly two years ago - six months before the contract was set to expire, Fourspring said.
Some meetings have only been five minutes long, and there have been no meetings all summer, he said.
Thirty-six minutes into Wednesday night's meeting, Fourspring said it was one of the longer meetings between the two entities. The meeting lasted approximately three hours.
Meanwhile, board president Donna James was surprised to hear about the demonstration since the board was scheduled to meet Wednesday night with the union.
"I'm not sure why they would release something like that. I don't know what they want me to say," James said.
The negotiations between the two entities hit a stalemate in May when the school board accepted the report of a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board fact finder, but the union rejected it, she noted.
"We've gone above and beyond to meet them. They're asking for a lot of money," James said.
But Varano and the teachers don't see it that way.
While he won't publicly discuss the details, Varano said, "The school district has more than enough money to afford to pay what we're asking for. It's not unreasonable. We don't want to be No. 1. We don't want to be the lowest. We want to be average."
Among the information revealed in Fact Finder Rochelle K. Kaplan's report, the union proposed a step increase for those moving through the salary schedule and a stipend of $1,500 to those at the top of the salary schedule for the first year of the new contract, which would be 12-13. In the second and third years, the union proposed a 2 percent increase to the salary, plus step increases.
The school district, meanwhile, proposed a freeze of salary and step increases for the first year. In the two subsequent years, it wants to keep the step movement freeze and allow a 2 percent increase to the salary scale each year.
Kaplan seemed to fall in the middle in her recommendation: a step increase retroactive to Jan. 1, 2013, and a $1,500 stipend to the employees at the top step of the salary schedule for the 2012-13 school year. In the 2013-14 school year, she recommends a step increase plus a .5 percent on-scale increase and, for 2014-15, a step increase plus 1 percent on-scale increase.
The district also proposed increasing the amount bargaining unit members contribute to the cost of health care premium from 1 percent of salary to 7 and 8 percent of the premium in the second and third years of the contract. The association, noting the district has saved $100,000 in costs merely from moving to a tiered plan, wants the 1 percent contribution to remain.
Kaplan recommended the district retain the current premium share at 1 percent of salary in the 2012-13 school year, but increase it to 5 percent in the second and third contract years.
Best for the students
Based on 2011-12 numbers, MCA ranked 499th on per pupil spending in the state. With a $15,524,186.33 budget, the district spent $9,768.65 per student. The district also ranked 55th in the state for low income at 59.5 percent of their student population receiving free and reduced lunches.
"If we want our children to succeed, we must invest in the priorities that build the foundation for learning. You can't put children first, if you always put our teachers last and that's what we feel the school board has been doing for a longtime," Varano said.
Since the teachers are working on an expired contract, Varano said they have been doing what's best for the students.
No settlement was reached after the Wednesday night meeting, so Varano said the teachers will be back tonight to picket again.
He invites anyone from the community to attend tonight's picket if they want to support the area teachers or if they want to ask questions.
"I strongly, strongly hope that this will move the process along so we can get a deal done as soon as possible," he said.
Asked whether the teachers would ever consider striking, Varano did not commit to an answer.
"I'm not going to say yes. I'm not going to say no. I will say that we are committed to getting a deal done so we can provide education for the students," he said.
James said there is not a plan in place if teachers decided to strike.
Old Forge School District teachers in Lackawanna County and Wyoming Area School District teachers in Luzerne County have been striking since Sept. 3 while their negotiations with the school board have been contentious.
State law allows teachers to strike twice in one school year, and a first strike must end when 180 days of school cannot be completed by June 15.
Old Forge teachers must end their strike Sept. 25 while Wyoming Area must end theirs Oct. 4.
The Mount Carmel Area School Board will meet at 7 p.m. tonight at the high school meeting room at 600 W. Fifth St. The picketing will begin at 5:45 p.m.