A Strike to Kickoff the Next School Year

"’Strike’ shall mean a concerted action in failing to report for duty, the willful absence from one’s position, the stoppage of work, slowdown or the abstinence in whole or in part from the full, faithful, and proper performance of the duties of employment for the purposes of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions or compensation or the rights, privileges, or obligations of employment…" Section 1101-A, Act 88 of 1992

The 2012-13 school year might have been the first year since the 1970s that Pennsylvania did not have a school strike-the determination on whether a dispute in the Old Forge District in northeastern PA is still unresolved as to whether it was a strike or a lockout. Right now, as it is summer break, there is no classroom instruction happening in the districts around the state. That includes the Shaler Area School District, which, come September, may be on an extended summer vacation as the teachers’ union has already given notice that no contract means no work. The school board accepted and the union rejected the fact-finder’s report that came as part of the negotiation process that began in January 2011. Shaler had a three day strike in the 1997-98 school year.

Defenders of the teachers are probably bowled over by how magnanimous the union is being–after all, Act 88 requires only a 48 hour notice of a strike and here the school board and the parents have been given more than two months notice. They would implore the members of the school board to get back to the drawing board and get things right so as to avoid a stoppage. After all, they have had two and a half years and the teachers did not follow though with a strike authorization they made in November of 2012.

But the early strike notice gives teachers an opportunity to spend some or all of their summer expressing their distaste with the contract situation. Even though it would not be a strike in the most proper terms, teachers could mill around the outside the schools from now until the beginning of September from early morning until late afternoon to keep parents and school board members aware of what things would look like should a strike occur. Since teachers do not deem it a great imposition to disrupt parents’ and students’ plans for summer vacation-or even Christmas Holidays- then perhaps the families of teachers won’t mind if the teachers launch a pre-emptive summer protest demonstration that lasts several weeks.

Was it a Strike or Not?

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association collects and publishes data on labor impasses that tend to occur from time to time in one (or more) of the state’s 500 school districts. Last year we noted that the 2012-13 school year was nearly the first year without a strike in nearly forty years, only to be spoiled by the Neshaminy School District, where teachers walked off the job twice.

Thus far in the 2012-13 school year there has not been a strike…unless you ask the school board of the Old Forge School District in Lackawanna County. Because they definitely feel teachers went on strike in December. However, the union representatives insist that the teachers were locked out. A strike means no unemployment compensation, a lockout means employees can collect.

Teachers went back to the classroom on January 2nd, but the issue is not resolved. When the board met to act on the 2013-14 budget (which contains a property tax increase) and union grievances the language referred to a lockout, which prompted one board member to ask that by accepting that language the board would be creating a problem for itself. The solicitor for the District stated "They can word it however they want, we are just denying it". PSBA officials don’t yet know how to categorize the issue as that decision comes from the PA Labor Relations Board.

The Year without a Strike…Almost

Pennsylvania is the perennial leader in teacher strikes among the small group of states that actually permit them. But the 2011-12 school year was shaping up to be something of a rarity: a school year without a strike. The first months of the school year came and went and there were no strikes until the Neshaminy School District in Bucks County announced on Monday that the teachers’ union had given notice that they were going on strike. It is not yet known how long they will be out but per Act 88 guidelines the District has to complete 180 days by June 14th but a second strike could extend the school year to June 30th.

According to the most recent Department of Education data the District has about 9,400 students and its per student spending is over $16,000.

Data that we have compiled from the PA School Boards Association goes back to the 1976-77 school year but the school years from 1992-93 on are the "Act 88 years" in that they followed the passage of the statute aimed at curtailing school strikes. Last year, the 2010-11 year was the lowest count of strikes and all of them (3 in total) occurred in Allegheny County. The 1992-93 year had 20 strikes, the highest in the Act 88 time period.

The education establishment might be quick to celebrate a year with just one strike, if Neshaminy is indeed the only strike that happens this year. However, since they believe that "no child should be left behind" or that "the only acceptable number of layoffs or forloughs is zero", why should they not be held to the zero acceptable standard when it comes to strikes?

One Strike Ends, Another Begins

Taxpayers, families with school age children, and students hoping to attend classes in two Allegheny County districts are likely exhibiting different reactions today. In the northeast corner of the County the Allegheny Valley School District just ended its walkout today.

It began on September 16th but the end of the teacher strike does not mean the dispute is over. The impasse now goes to non-binding arbitration under Act 88, the law governing collective bargaining for school employees. Since that law also prohibits the school from hiring people to teach who have not worked at the school for the previous twelve months, it was up to administrators to keep classes going for seniors who hope to graduate on time. "Parents were very grateful. There were phone calls and e-mails from quite a few parents" said one administrator.

Gratitude will likely be in short supply in the south hills Bethel Park School District, however. Teachers in that district announced that they intend to go on strike this coming Tuesday because of unsatisfactory negotiations on a contract that expired at the end of June. Like Allegheny Valley and other districts that have seen public education interrupted by a work stoppage, the teachers’ union there is looking for "a fair and equitable settlement while maintaining the quality of and access to our health care, and to reduce class size to provide a better learning environment for our students".

Allegheny County holds the distinction of being the only county in the state to see a teacher strike thus far this school year according to the PA School Boards Association.

District in the Strike Zone

The website of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) states it as clear as day: "no local associations are on strike at this time". The website of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) likewise does not report any work stoppages for the current school year. But the Allegheny Valley School District in northeastern Allegheny County could be the first in the state to see its teachers go on strike.

"We have not given notice, although things are bad-really bad-at this point" said the head of the PSEA. The school board and the teachers’ union have both indicated they will not budge on their positions. A fact finding report would have meant that the average teacher salary of $56,000 would have risen to $63,419 by the final year of the four year contract.

Note that Allegheny Valley’s school tax rate has increased 30% from 2003 to 2010, faster than the average increase for districts in Allegheny County (17%). Think taxpayers in the district want to hear about the complaints of the teachers’ union about unfair contracts, pay levels, or having to contribute to health care costs?

When will Pennsylvania opt to remove itself from the small group of states that permit teacher strikes and end its position as the perennial leader of such stoppages?

Pennsylvania is #1…in Teacher Strikes

We have pointed on many occasions how Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that give teachers the right to strike if collective bargaining does not produce a contract.  Teacher strikes are often high profile and garner a lot of media attention.


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