The Deeper Implications of the Ambridge Teacher Strike

Summary:  Yet another Pennsylvania school district is in the midst of a teacher strike with the walkout leaving parents and students to suffer the consequences. It is past time for the state to eliminate the right of teachers to strike to protect the interests of students and taxpayers.


In a news story that occurs all too frequently in Pennsylvania, another teacher strike has just joined the state’s nation leading count of teacher work stoppages. On December 13th, Ambridge teachers went out on strike and can remain out until January 4th


What will happen as a result of the strike?  Nothing bad for the teachers—that is a certainty. They will not lose a day’s pay. The school year will be completed by adding days in June to get to the mandated 180 days of instruction.  The teachers will get paid for those tacked on days.  This is unlike New York where teachers lose two days’ pay for every day out on strike insuring that there is a price to be paid for walking off the job.  Nor will Ambridge teachers lose any health benefits, pension benefits, sick leave days or other non- monetary benefits.  In short, the strike is, in effect, giving the Ambridge teachers a longer holiday break.


While the teachers face no real consequences for their walkout, students and their parents and potentially taxpayers will suffer negative effects. In student homes where both parents work, arrangements for childcare will have to be made, possibly at considerable expense.  And next June, family plans for travel that could be severely disrupted with possible monetary losses, attendance at summer camp or other long planned activities for some kids having to be scuttled,  and starting summer jobs for many older students put on hold.  And the interruption of classes, test taking and other academic activities could be detrimental to students as well. Thus, much of the negative effects of the strike will be borne by students and their parents.


The following key statistics describe the Ambridge School District. Located in southeast Beaver County, the District’s enrollment was 3,062 in the 2005-06 school year.  A decade later (2015-16) it has fallen to 2,452—a decline of seventeen percent.  Financial data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) for the 2014-15 school year, (the most recent available) put Ambridge’s total expenditure per average daily membership (ADM) at $15,136.  Ambridge per pupil spending is higher than neighboring Beaver County districts, Central Valley ($13,568), Freedom Area ($13,925) and even Butler County neighbor Seneca Valley ($15,013).  The instructional expenditures per student for Ambridge were $8,433, which places them lower than Seneca Valley ($8,665) but higher than Freedom Area ($8,223) and Central Valley ($7,755).


Academically, the Ambridge District ranked 378th of 585 districts and charter schools in the state—based on rankings of test scores released by the PDE (last updated in September 2016).  Seneca Valley is ranked 45th, Central Valley comes in at 194th, while Freedom Area places 319th.  Thus, despite spending more per pupil than other districts, Ambridge students are not as well prepared academically as students in neighboring districts.


Of the 500 school districts in 2014-15, Ambridge’s State Tax Equalization Board (STEB) market value ranks as the 236th highest and its equalized millage rate is 88th highest making it a relatively high tax district. If the school board accedes to teacher demands, and goes beyond the fact finder’s suggested fair settlement compensation increases, in order to prevent some of the hardship and costs the strike inflicts on the students and parents, taxpayers will feel the effects of the strike in higher tax bills.


To be sure, when it comes to strikes the State’s policies are very inconsistent.  On the one hand truancy law requires students to attend school and there are legal consequences (although seldom enforced) for students who are not in school. Yet the state allows teachers to refuse to show up for work for a couple of weeks with no negative consequences.


The Ambridge teachers strike is a reminder of just how far out of step Pennsylvania’s labor laws are. Only a handful of states allow teacher strikes, and only two or three actually ever see a significant number of strikes.  Sadly, teacher strikes, transit worker strikes, union dues collection by employers, stringent prevailing wage laws, the most out of step union favoring binding arbitration laws and the absence of a right to work law in Pennsylvania are an enormous drag on the economy.


Teacher strikes are clearly a failure of Pennsylvania’s government to act in the best interests of students and taxpayers while favoring a powerful special interest.  That is a serious flaw that ought to be repaired for the Commonwealth’s sake—and soon.

Another School Strike in Pennsylvania

With the just initiated Highlands School District strike, Pennsylvania continues to cling tenaciously to its title of teacher strike capital of the United States. For many years the Commonwealth accounted for half of all teacher strikes in the country.  A strike creates disruptions in students’ lives, pressure on working parents to find child supervision, and delays in completing the school year with all that entails for students looking for summer jobs and family travel plans. Eventually, it will mean higher taxes to pay for the compensation increases the union will receive in a new contract.


And what does it cost teachers?  Nothing. They will work the required number of school days to complete the mandatory school year and get paid their entire annual salary. What a great deal. They risk nothing other than a little public anger that history tells them will dissipate quickly. In New York, teachers who go on strike lose two days’ pay for every day off the job. Thus, they will suffer income loss even though they finish the mandatory number of days in the school year. Not many strikes occur in New York.  On the other hand, teachers in the Highlands district have struck twice before, during the period 1997 to 2013.


The Education Commission of the States pointed out in a 2011 report that 35 states permit collective bargaining for school employees, but only eight of these states permit strikes.   Most states have long since decided that prolonged shutdowns of the schools during the school year are not good for the education of children and it is certainly not reputation enhancing for the state to be known as a place where school kids can be left in the lurch for weeks because teachers are allowed to walk out.


Consider the absurdity of this Commonwealth with its mandatory attendance laws for children of school age wherein parents are legally obligated to make sure their children are in class, unless properly excused for good reason such as illness, but teachers can unilaterally and peremptorily decide to take a two week vacation during the school year. And that includes taking it toward the very end of the year thereby inflicting the greatest possible hardship on students and parents.  It certainly calls into question the mantra teachers continually spout about how much they care for their students.  Union loyalty and show of power are obviously more important.   Clearly all those states without teacher strikes with good academic records must be doing something right.


The state granted permission to strike is a reflection of the power public sector unions—especially teachers—have had in rigging and sustaining the laws to create maximum benefits for themselves. The threat of strikes produces a heavy bargaining advantage. Occasionally, an actual strike is needed to remind other districts of that bargaining advantage.


This power is not constitutionally required and it is not ordained from on high. It derives from pure, raw political will and an electorate that cannot, or will not, find the strength to get legislation passed that eliminates the right of teachers—and while they are at it transit workers—to strike.


Beyond the right to strike, other Pennsylvania laws are written to protect teacher jobs. To wit; consider the requirement that to terminate teacher positions the district has to eliminate an entire program or have suffered large enrollment losses. Of course eliminating programs elicits maximum public outcry as parents whose children are involved squawk loudest. Commonwealth statutes also require that no district will have its basic education allocation cut from year to year even if the district has seen substantial enrollment reductions.  Isn’t that great if you are a school employee?


And so it goes. Pennsylvania continues to lag economically with its outdated pro union biased laws; it is not a right to work state, it has costly prevailing wage laws, and is one of a handful of states allowing teachers and transit worker strikes.


This will not change unless or until voters decide enough is enough, but in light of the fact that the situation has been going on for so long with no successful effort to do anything about it, one has to surmise that not a sufficient number of voters are upset about it. Therefore, it seems the uphill battle to address these problems will be with us for a long time.

East Allegheny Teachers on Strike

In yet another indication of how out of touch with economic reality the teacher unions in Pennsylvania are, the East Allegheny District teachers are on the picket line demanding more generous terms in a new contract. Terms the school board has refused to meet because of the increase in the tax rate it will require.  Meanwhile, teacher union members in other school districts are supporting the strike—no doubt in hopes the East Allegheny school board will be forced to cave and set an example for upcoming negotiations in their districts.


Of course, the unions don’t deal in any economic reality except the one that they cocoon themselves in ignorance of the world around them. It would be extraordinary if they could take their blinders off, stop listening to their union boss’s version of the facts for a few minutes and get some idea of how good they have it in comparison to most of the people who are paying the taxes that support them so well.


The average pay of the 130 or so teachers in the district for the school year 2012-13 was over $64,000 for a 36 week school year and some teacher work days. Obviously, many of the more senior teachers and those with advanced degrees are making well above the average. Based on their hourly compensation the average pay would be $84,000 for a full year for East Allegheny teachers. This is comparable to the pay of full time employed engineers in Pennsylvania.  And bear in mind that the average salary for year round employed persons in Pennsylvania was $45,000 in 2013.


Beyond the handsome salary levels, the benefits package instructional employees currently receive amounts to 57 percent of the salary compensation.  This package includes very generous medical insurance and pension benefits that are far superior to those received by the vast majority of private sector employees—that is, for those who still get employer sponsored pensions. Indeed, the school pension fund problem has reared its ugly head over the last five years requiring a near tripling of District payments into the fund from $557,000 in 2008-09 to $1,365,000 in the 2012-13.  And, this problem promises to continue to worsen for some time to come.


Moreover, enrollment in the district fell by 209 students to 1,692 students in 2012-13, an 11 per cent drop since school year 2009-10.  This has happened even though District expenditures have climbed 15 percent from the 2011-2012 school year when stimulus funds had been used up.  Those expenditures were funded by significant increases in local revenue and state funding.  Currently, the district is spending just under $18,500 per student.


On the revenue side, state funds rose from $11,370,000 in 2011-12 to $12,937,000 million in the current fiscal year, a 13.8 percent rise.  Local tax revenues climbed from $15,574,000 to $16,851,000 over the same period, a rise of 8.2 percent.  So the idea that the state and local taxpayers have not been trying to keep funding up is simply not true. It’s just that jumps in pension outlays and costs of other benefits alone are eating up the revenue increases.


Clearly, unless something is done to rein in the pension funding nightmare, budgets will be strained and employee cutbacks will likely be required. It is happening in other districts and East Allegheny with its declining enrollment will not escape this harsh reality. This reality, along with any labor settlement that further worsens the financial capability and stability of the East Allegheny District, will almost certainly cause some teachers to lose their jobs.


If the teachers have any respect for the taxpayers and the children, they would be of a mind to help the District through the tough period it now faces and through the years of declining enrollment and rising pension fund payments.  The problem is the seniority privileges. The most senior teachers will be spared layoffs if cuts are made and those most recently hired will lose their employment.  And that quite often means very good younger teachers are sacrificed in favor of keeping less capable senior teachers.  So, the District could be doubly harmed by having to lay off teachers and/or classroom aides.


But this is what the union wants and they typically get heavy support from their members, both senior and recently hired.


The damage done by strikes in terms of problems created for parents will be delays or postponements in assignments, and pushing the end of the school year to the middle of June or later if it is a hard winter with a substantial number of snow days. But worst of all, the union members will lose no pay. They will work the entire number of days required to complete the school year and get all their annual salary.  Pennsylvania needs to adopt the New York model wherein striking school workers are docked two days of pay for every one missed, so they are actually losing pay when they get paid for days worked in making up lost time. That is a powerful deterrent to strikers.


Just once it would be refreshing to hear a teacher who is unhappy with the pay at East Allegheny say they are applying to other schools that pay better or that they are looking at private sector employment.  It won’t happen because the union mentality is so ingrained it cannot be shaken by facts or events. If they price themselves out of jobs, they will blame the Governor or the Legislature or selfish taxpayers who do not appreciate them and will not give them what the teachers think they deserve.


Until the Pennsylvania Governor and Legislature decide teacher strikes are hurting the state and its taxpayers and end the right to strike, the East Allegheny strike will simply be just one in a long line of strikes to come across the state.

Three Teacher Strikes Open the Year

Residents in the Allegheny County school district Shaler Area had a strong inkling back in June that there would likely be a teacher strike if negotiations did not produce a new contract. We suggested that teachers demonstrate over the summer to show they were serious: it is doubtful that they actually did that, but today the picket lines were manned and the start of school delayed. The issues related to education, pay, benefits, whether or not Pennsylvania should allow strikes, replacement teachers, etc., etc., arise again after a relatively quiet year on the labor front and those in the district and others in southwestern Pennsylvania are going to hear a lot about it in the media.

Based on data from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association-who collects and disseminates data on strikes in the state which we used to produce our most recent report on the topic-Shaler teachers last went on strike in the 1997-98 school year for three days.

While the Shaler strike is obviously dominating the news locally, there are other strikes that are occurring in northeastern Pennsylvania to start the school year. Teachers in the Wyoming Area District and the Old Forge District have walked off the job this week.

Chicago Teachers Give Strike Notice: Pennsylvanians Take Note

Taking a page from Pennsylvania’s normal role as the nation’s leading teacher strike state, Chicago teachers have just issued a 10 day notice of intent to strike. Not happy with the District’s offer of 2 percent raises, the 26,000 member union threatens to send 400,000 students home for a longer holiday.

The head of the school district pledges to meet with the union every day to avoid a strike if at all possible. Teachers are upset with Mayor Emanuel’s rescinding last year’s pay raise-something that cannot happen in Pennsylvania. They are also unhappy with the new, longer 7 hour school day. Just wait until negotiations over how to determine pay raises other than automatic increases based on seniority begin. Seniority is among labor unions’ most sacred cows. This could get ugly.

And the irony is that this happening in Illinois which has one of the worst financial situations of any state in the country with bond downgrades already announced and more could be coming. After the dark of night, last minute 67 percent increase in personal income taxes a couple of years ago, there is little for Illinois taxpayers to be happy about. Now comes the threat of a strike that could be prolonged and the possibility that, in the end, teachers will get their hoped for raises and no change in evaluation procedures. Such an eventuality will almost certainly mean Chicagoans and Illinois taxpayers are going to digging even deeper.

All this is by way of pointing out the absolute absurdity of allowing teachers to strike in the first place. Historically, Illinois along with Ohio and Pennsylvania, have accounted for virtually all teacher strikes in the U.S. Ohio tried to stop them but lost a referendum vote that repealed the elimination statute. Pennsylvania, the nation’s foremost victim of teacher strikes, has not seriously taken up the elimination of strikes. And one can rest assured that as soon as the economy shows any signs of sustained improvement, the Commonwealth will see its status of national leader return. Wisconsin has outlawed teacher strikes shrinking the list where strikes are allowed even further. And it is important to note that all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states do not permit strikes.

PA’s Strike Picture

We know that Pennsylvania is the perennial leader in teacher strikes. It outpaces nearby states that have more school districts and permit teacher strikes. We also know that Pennsylvania prohibits certain types of employees from going on strikes-police officers, firefighters, prison guards, personnel necessary for the functioning of courts, and mental health workers.

But how many public sector strikes have there been in the Commonwealth in recent years? Data from the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, Bureau of Mediation tracked the number of strikes back to January 1, 2006 and found that there were 62 public sector strikes since that date. That’s a rate of roughly one strike per month over the time frame.

Thirty seven (60%) of these were teacher strikes; another 10 (16%) were school support staff strikes; add in the additional 6 (10%) carried out by vocational-technical school instructors and staff and secondary education personnel and it is plain to see that nearly every public sector strike in PA in the last five years was tied to education.

So what’s left over? Five (8%) strikes were transit related, with SEPTA’s 2009 strike accounting for four of these. The remaining four strikes (6%) are classified as "other" with two of those related to county-level employees.

With other states, including mid-western neighbors, making changes to collective bargaining and strike powers, will Pennsylvania join the crowd or remain out of step with its public sector framework?

Pennsylvania Becomes a Teacher Strike Dinosaur

The Commonwealth endured three teacher strikes this past school year, with Allegheny County serving as the epicenter of activity.  Walkouts in the Allegheny Valley, Moon, and Bethel Park School Districts inconvenienced students and families and continued the trajectory of Pennsylvania seeing a teacher strike somewhere in the state every year since the 1976-77 school year. 


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Bethel Park Schools Need the Wisconsin Treatment

After enduring a six week strike last year, the Bethel Park schools are once again facing a possible teacher walkout. Why? Because teachers want more money and continued control over work rules. If Pennsylvania would pass a law containing the provisions of Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed earlier this year, Bethel Park teachers would not be talking walk out again. Indeed, under the Wisconsin statute, not only would they be forbidden from striking, they would not be allowed to bargain for anything other than base wages. Benefits, work rules, etc., would be left to management to decide upon.

Moreover, the school district would not be permitted to withhold union dues from employees and remit them to the union bosses. And finally, the union would have to hold a recertification vote every year with a requirement that 51 percent of all bargaining units members vote in the affirmative for the union to continue as the representative of the employees.

Too bad Pennsylvania is so late to the teacher strike elimination derby. Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio have all eliminated the dreadful practice. Pennsylvania stands with Vermont as the only state in the Northeast as allowing strikes. None of its neighboring states allow strikes. So why is it that Pennsylvania’s legislators cannot get this albatross off the backs of children and taxpayers?

Bethel Park would certainly benefit from a dose of Wisconsin treatment of union abuse of taxpayers and the public.

Bills to End Teacher Strikes Introduced in Harrisburg

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more:” A Shakespearian cry from Henry the Fifth urging soldiers to take advantage of an important military opportunity that could soon be lost. And so it is that Representatives Metcalfe and Rock are proposing a package of bills that would outlaw teacher strikes and impose sizable monetary penalties for teachers who violate the no-strike statute.


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Regional Districts Cold to Pay Freeze Proposal

As part of his budget address the Governor put forth the idea of a pay freeze for public school employees, noting that "…a statewide freeze of teacher pay could save districts about $400 million". Soon after the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union encouraged his members to enter into talks with school boards over a pay freeze.

So has the idea gained traction since then? The Pennsylvania Association of School Boards (PSBA) has collected a list of schools that have communicated to the association that they adopted a wage freeze for the upcoming fiscal year. Five districts have adopted what could be termed a district wide freeze: that is, administrators, staff, and teachers have taken a wage freeze. Three districts have a wage freeze that does not affect staff; five have a freeze that does not involve teachers; the largest group, involving 25 districts, have adopted a pay freeze for administrators only.

The idea has been slow coming in southwestern Pennsylvania: only two districts (Belle Vernon and Seneca Valley) out of the 38 total have adopted a pay freeze. Neither one involves teachers in the freeze.

About one-fourth of the districts in Allegheny County have teacher contracts that are set to expire this year. The largest district, Pittsburgh, just negotiated a five-year contract in 2010 and has no intention of reopening it at this time. The County still has the distinction of being the only one in the state that have had teacher strikes this year and the contracts in those districts (Allegheny Valley, Bethel Park, and Moon Area) are not yet resolved.