BP teachers back in school

Published Aug 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm (Updated Aug 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm)

Bethel Park school students returned to class Sept. 3 with the assurance that teachers will be staying in the classroom, at least as long as the district and the union participate in fact-finding.

On Aug. 21, the district filed a request for appointment of fact-finding with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to assist with contract negations with the Bethel Park Federation of Teachers. Teachers and other members of the union have been working under the terms of the previous contract that expired June 30, 2010.

School Board President Donna Cook explained that the fact-finding is a lengthy process that could last at least two months. During the process the two sides can continue to negotiate and have scheduled sessions for Sept. 4 and 11.

Also, state law mandates that teachers remain on the job during the fact-finding process, Cook said.

In 2010, the union staged a strike that lasted from Oct. 25 until Dec. 5, 2010, when members of the union, including teachers, psychologists, guidance counselors and nurses, returned before state Act 88 kicked in. After the work stoppage the district and the union participated in non-binding arbitration with both sides eventually rejecting the arbitration panel’s decision in July of 2011.

Walt Michalski is the staff representative for the state American Federation of Teachers and is involved in the local negotiations.

He reiterated that while union members held a work stoppage a few months after the contract expired, members have continued to work under the terms of the old contract without another strike.

Michalski said he felt “we were making progress,” but then the district filed for fact-finding, a process both sides have been through in the past.

“(The district is asking for the fact-finding) to bring a fresh approach to the process,” Cook said.

Fact-finding is a non-binding process. The PLRB will appoint a fact-finder and both sides will present their proposals at a hearing. Within 40 days after the hearing, the fact-finder will present their report and recommendations. Both parties will then have 10 days to either accept or reject the report and recommendations.

If either or both parties reject the report, it will be published on the PLRB website and both sides will have another 10 days to accept or reject. Both sides must accept the report for it to become binding.

District officials and union negotiators have met 21 times since May of 2012.

“While progress has been made, we believe that fact-finding will provide us with the best opportunity to bring this negotiations process to an equitable conclusion for not only the teachers, but also the taxpayers of the (district),” said Cook. “(We) are aware of the frustration of the community that these negotiations have been ongoing since 2010, and we share that frustration as well.”

Both sides have said that the main issues dividing them continue to be salaries and benefits.

According to district Director of Communications Vicki Flotta, since the 2009-10 school year, health care costs for the district have risen from $8,871,615 to $9,956,197, and retirement contributions have increased from $866,218 to $3,156,195, an increase of $2,289,977.

The district has raised taxes the last four years to fund salaries as well as to pay for health care and pensions.

Cook explained that under state Act 1 legislation, school boards do not have the ability to raise taxes above a set index.

“We simply can’t give what we don’t have,” she said.

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