CATAWISSA R.R. - Based on information released Tuesday night, Southern Columbia Area School District and its teachers are far apart in their efforts to reach a deal on a new contract.

The public got a look at just how divided the two sides are when board Vice President Charlie Porter, head of the negotiations and personnel committee, read a four-page report on the contract talks with the Southern Columbia Education Association (SCEA).

Even the fact that Porter made the details public was a point of contention.

"Entering into public negotiations is counter productive to the effort to reach a fair contract," Mark McDade, Pennsylvania State Education Association representative for Southern Columbia, said Wednesday after being told of Porter's presentation. The information release could create a "sour tenor" for the next negotiation session, scheduled for Tuesday, he said.

In an email Wednesday, Christopher N. Gengler, SCEA president, was even more critical, putting the blame on Porter and board members.

"Under the direction of Mr. Porter, the Southern Columbia School Board has presided over a continual degradation of academics and other school programs," Gengler wrote. "(His) latest attempt to misdirect from the true causes of Southern Columbia's fiscal situation by airing details of the ongoing negotiations will do nothing to correct the problem. The board's fiscal negligence and austerity policies have led us to this point."

Porter said Wednesday he released the report because of the tax increase referendum scheduled to be decided by voters May 20.

"If we are going to referendum, we have to be transparent to our public on our money issues," he said.

Gengler discussed the referendum, which asks voters for permission to raise school property taxes above the state-permitted maximum to help alleviate the coming school year budget deficit. (See separate story)

"Successful passage of this referendum would partly undo the damage done over the last decade, but voters should take note. This referendum is only the beginning of their opportunity to voice their discontent with the downward trend in educational funding," he wrote.

The district has always maintained the right to release information about negotiations to the public, Porter said.

"As Mr. McDade found out in Danville, it certainly has been a fair labor practice to do it this way," Porter said in referencing the neighboring district, where teachers have gone on strike.

"Clearly, the school board is more interested in playing politics by pandering to the public rather than bargaining in good faith with the teachers. Nevertheless, we are committed to good faith negotiations between us," Gengler wrote.

Health care costs

According to Porter, the biggest sticking point in the negotiations are health care costs, which is a "area of expenditures where future costs can be controlled, helping to fund programs and salaries."

Two years ago, with association approval, the district switched insurance providers, which slowed the increase in premium costs, not only to the district, but to employees as well.

Currently, teachers are paying 24 percent of their premium costs for a zero-deductible preferred provider organization (PPO) plan, but when the health care contract expires in June 2015, SCA proposes to go to a $2,000 single/$4,000 family deductible plan; in conjunction, the district will fund health savings accounts for the employees in the amount of $1,000 per year for individuals and $2,000 for family subscribers.

A Health Savings Account (HSA) acts like an IRA for users, except the money can be used to reimburse employees for medical, prescription, dental and vision expenses without being taxed. Any unused funds roll over each year.

When the contract expires, health care costs are expected to rise 30 to 40 percent over the previous plan. Porter said the district is trying to get a plan in place to avoid projected increases and also avoid the 40 percent Affordable Health Care Act "Cadillac Tax" that may be levied on the current plan.

McDade and Gengler said the district is forgetting that when the two sides worked together on changing the health care plan, it saved Southern Columbia approximately $900,000. The latest proposal is not acceptable, they said.

"They do not want to work with us and have us be part of the solution, but rather be the solution," McDade said. "We are more than willing to work with them to investigate cost savings on health care, and our proposal has cost savings, but that's not good enough. They are just looking for another bite of the apple."

According to Porter's report, SCEA proposed to keep the current PPO plan and employee contributions would stay the same. But it would allow the district to offer the high deductible/HSA plan on a volunteer basis, require no contributions to the premium by employees, and a maximum deductible limit of $150 for singles and $300 for families. The proposal would require the district to fund the HSA accounts to pay the remaining deductibles at $1,850 for singles and $3,700 for families.

"Many of the issues the teachers have proposed in negotiations are non-monetary and have a positive impact on the classroom environment," Gengler said. "We have been working without a contract or wage increase for almost two years."

"If the teachers have a less costly health plan, the teachers will pay less in, and we won't have to make increased salary demands," McDade said. "That, in turn, will be less payroll taxes the district has to pay. It's a true win-win situation."

Previous ideas

At the last negotiation session held March 20, both sides heard a health-care presentation from BSI Consultants and held considerable discussions on the issue.

Porter said the district then made a one-time offer to the association for salary increases above their previous offers, contingent on the health care change being accepted.

The district's offer: a three-year deal with no salary increase the first year, with the district emphasizing that all other employees have taken a pay freeze at some point previously; a 1.75-percent salary increase the second year, and a 2-percent salary increase the third year, along with a 2-percent reduction in the health care premium paid by employees, from 24 to 22 percent.

Previously, the district had offered no increase in the first year, then salary increases of 1.3 percent and 1.4 percent each year after that.

The association countered with a four-year offer with raises each year, along with step increases - automatic salary increased that kick in when a teacher adds a year of service, or gets a higher educational degree, such as going from a bachelor's to a master's degree.

SCEA's offer was as follows: a four-year deal (starting with the current school year) but with a pay freeze for the first six months of year one; a 2.75-percent salary increase plus a 1.36-percent step increase for the remainder of year one; a 2.75-percent salary increase plus a step increase of 1.7 percent the second year, a 2.5-percent salary increase plus a step increase of 1.85 percent the third year, and a 2.25-percent salary increase plus a step increase of 1.11 percent the fourth year.

Porter hopes the next negotiating session will not turn sour, despite McDade's prediction.

"For the most part, our sessions have been very professional," Porter said. "I hope we can keep it that way."