COAL TOWNSHIP - The Shamokin Area Education Association has authorized the use of a strike while progress on a new collective bargaining agreement remains slow.

The recent vote by union teachers passed "resoundingly," according to Mark McDade, the union's representative to the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

"However, there's been no discussion of setting a date at this time," McDade said Monday.

Teachers have been working under the terms of an expired contract for nearly one year. Negotiations began in January and both sides have made proposals. The last session was held earlier this month.

It ended "abruptly," McDade said.

Charles Shuey, chair of the school board's negotiating committee, agreed with McDade that progress has been slow. There is no bargaining session currently scheduled, but Shuey said he's had inquiries from the union's negotiators and that he planned today to discuss setting a date.

The school board was made aware of the Shamokin Area Education Association's strike authorization, Shuey said, but threats have not been made.

"At this point, I don't anticipate a strike," Shuey said.

Shuey is joined on the negotiating committee by school board directors Rosalie Smoogen and Jeffrey Kashner. The district is represented by labor law attorney Benjamin Pratt of the CGA Law Firm.

They're also working to negotiate a contract with the district's AFSCME union employees. That contract, too, is expired.

Mary Yohe is president of the Shamokin Area Education Association. According to Shuey, Yohe is joined on the union's negotiating team by teachers Bethann Shaffer, Tammy Glowatski, William Clark, Robert Cowder and Gail Purdy. They're represented by McDade.

An attempt to reach Yohe for comment Monday was unsuccessful.

'Major issue'

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.

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

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Shamokin's median household income in 2012 was $30,675; Coal Township's was $35,186.

Nearly 70 percent of district students receive free or reduced lunches.

Shamokin Area's annual audit, accepted by the school board earlier this month, says the costs of salaries and benefits for district staff is "a major financial issue."

The district is facing a $3.1 million deficit in the 2014-15 budget. It will be erased by transferring funds from a surplus account. The same method was used in the current year's budget to erase a $1.8 million deficit. The surplus account is expected to drop to $2.6 million as a result, an amount low enough to draw the concern of the district's business manager, Karen Colangelo.

The surplus has been in steady decline in recent years. It had exceeded $10.3 million in 2008. It is used to pay bills throughout the year while tax revenue is collected and government funding dispersed. Shamokin Area's bills are about $2.5 million each month, Colangelo said.

"It's just enough to keep it flowing," she said of the projected surplus amount.

An event like last year's government shutdown would delay revenue, straining the surplus account. That won't stop vendors from seeking to collect.

"Let's say there's a shutdown, you have to worry," Colangelo said.

Shuey said he's "not anti-teacher," and that he believes teachers have a difficult job. He would like to see the starting salary raised, but financial limitations won't allow for increases across the board.

"I would love to give them a substantial increase if it were possible, particularly to those on the low end of the salary scale. We just have the financial reality to deal with and that is we don't have much money. I'm hoping at some point they'll understand that and act accordingly," Shuey said.

McDade said the union's bargaining team is "committed to bargaining a fair and equitable contract."

"It's our expectation that the (school) board is willing to reciprocate. However, the board has yet to demonstrate their cooperation at the bargaining table," he said.

Legal limits

According to McDade, the union is required to give 48 hours notice of a strike. State law dictates that the school year must last 180 days. A strike can only last up to the point where the last day of school would be held by June 15. Teachers would then be returned to work once the strike expires, triggering a mandatory non-binding arbitration process. A second strike could be engaged after that, setting the last possible day of school as June 30.

"The goal is to allow teachers to strike but at the same time allow students to complete the mandatory school year," McDade said.

Shamokin Area's last day is currently scheduled for June 6, according to the high school's online calendar, allowing five additional weekdays before June 15. There is only one vacation day scheduled before the end of school on May 26.

Danville teachers were on strike for 11 days. They returned to work Monday.

Line Mountain and Southern Columbia Area teachers unions are also negotiating new contracts with their respective districts. Mount Carmel Area and its union settled earlier this year.

Line Mountain teachers continue "working to the rule," a position the union adopted Sept. 30, meaning they work during the contracted 7 1/2 hours and nothing more. McDade said such a move has been discussed at Shamokin Area, but nothing has been finalized.

A press release is expected soon from the Shamokin Area Education Association, he said.