For the second time this school year, the Lehighton Area School District School Board has voted to reject a contract for Lehighton teachers. Directors based their decision on the recommendations of a fact finder.

But while the board rejected the contract, there may be hope in sight for frustrated educators in the district who have been working without a contract for more than six months. Board solicitor William Schwab offered an explanation for the rejection, noting that there were some questions about the fact finder's report.

"The fact finder gave us a percentage increase that she recommended for the first, second, and third year. She also gave us a salary schedule," said Schwab, noting that the salary schedule presented by the fact finder is different from the existing schedule resulting in substantially higher raises for the upcoming school year.

"If we follow her recommendations, we would be giving teachers a 5.6 percent increase next year," he said. "This would result in layoffs of teachers and paraprofessionals in this district," and possibly cutting some extracurricular activities.

While the board is not legally able to disclose the salary recommendations of the fact finder, Schwab said that this is substantially higher than raises offered during negotiations. The district announced last fall that it would offer raises in the range of 2.5 to 2.7 percent, which is less than half of the 5.6 percent suggested by the fact finder raising questions that there may be a technical error in the report.

"I don't know if we're really that far apart (in agreeing on salary increases), but we're looking at the fact finder and seeing a huge difference," said Schwab after the meeting. "We can't believe the teachers intended to agree to a contract that would lead to us laying off people. We felt that it was better to reject and keep meeting to see if we have a meeting of the minds or not. Maybe we do, but we don't know that until we meet with them."

The motion to reject the contract was given by board member Duane Eidem and seconded by Vice President Larry Stern. The motion passed unanimously.

Schwab will now notify the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board about the rejection, and will also contact the Lehighton Area Education Association to begin negotiations again.

LAEA President Bruce Koch was present at the meeting.

"I'm obviously disappointed," said Koch. "I understand their rationale, but hopefully we can take this information and come to terms with it. We've got a solid number that we seem to agree to.

"Had we known that this was the actual percentage (in the fact finder's report), our decision may have been different as well. We should be able to come to some decision. I do understand what the problem was."

Koch noted that the salary increase requested by the teacher's union is less than the district has budgeted for next year. The board is currently budgeting for a 4 percent increase in salary for the 2010-2011 school year.