BP School Board meeting gets heated on contract milestone
1,000 days, 1,000 nights
Things turned nasty during the public comment portion of the March 26 Bethel Park School Board meeting, which fell on the same day the 1,000 day milestone was reached in the stalled contract negotiations between the district and the Bethel Park Federation of Teachers.
“For 17 years I loved my job and felt I was making a difference,” Jim Pierson, a high school teacher told the board. “But, that was before the 1,000th day of being frozen at step 14 (of the pay scale).”
The district's 375 teachers have been working under the terms of a contract that expired nearly three years ago. Despite numerous negotiating sessions, non-binding arbitration and a six-week teacher strike, the two sides have failed to reach an agreement. Both sides have said that the major sticking points are salaries, benefits, class size and teacher schedules.
“Now when I walk into my classroom in the morning and look at my students, I think 'these kids' parents, or at least the elected officials that represent these kids' parents, hate me,'” Pierson said. “Should I have taken a vow of poverty?”
Pierson added that he felt he was being “punished” by the school board and the residents. “I have become a discouraged, disaffected and imbittered teacher,” he said.
Jonathan Gentile, also a teacher, expressed his dissatisfaction with the inability of the union and the district to negotiate a contract. “There's only so much I can take,” said Gentile. “Contracts should be a priority.”
District bus drivers are also working under an expired contract and contracts will soon be up for at least two additional district employee unions.
“I am very upset by what I heard,” Brenda Paysure fired back. “If you hate being in the classroom you need to quit. Walk out, do something else.”
Paysure said the teachers had no compassion for her son, a student who went through the six-week strike at the beginning of contract talks. “You have a lot of nerve coming here and whining about something,” she said.
Denise Dillion, another parent, echoed Paysure's comments about how the strike had affected the students and added that parents and other residents would like the negotiations to be more transparent. Dillion also asked if the negotiation sessions could be open to the public.
“I've never heard of a single instance of engaging in negotiations in public,” said Solicitor Michael Brungo. “I tend to think it would be counterproductive.”
Board President Donna Cook said board members have been told not to make public comments about the ongoing talks, and she felt it was wrong that federation members could attend public meetings and talk about negotiation issues.
“I am shocked to hear these comments,” said Cook. “There is nobody in this community or on this board that is trying to punish teachers. We are doing our best.”
Other board members brought up the issue of the effect of the union's demands on the district's finances.
“If you want to know where the money goes, show up (at budget meetings),” said Russ Spicuzza.
Board member and retired teacher Cynthia Buckley concurred. “Not one person on this board is out to punish the teachers,” said Buckley. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers. What do you want us to do? Where is your love for the children? Did you become a teacher to make a zillion dollars?”