At a meeting last Wednesday, the membership of Lehighton Area Education Association voted to reject Fact-Finder Michael Krchnar's recommended settlement to the ongoing contract negotiations.

"Among the reasons the report was not accepted were the absence of clarity on several issues in dispute as well as the insertion of a union concession of a long-standing condition not proposed or negotiated throughout the process nor argued by either party at the fact-finding hearing on Dec. 20," said Lehighton Area Education Association/PSEA/NEA President Annette Boyle.

"Simply, on one significant issue, the fact-finder exceeded his authority by adding to his recommended settlement, an issue that neither party proposed to be changed," she added. "This actually adds to the unresolved issues for the parties to bargain."

The teachers have been working with a contract that expired Aug. 31.

On Nov. 27, the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board appointed Krchnar to serve as the fact-finder in the impasse between the school district and the LAEA. Both parties filed written statements. An informal conference was held Dec. 13, at which time five issues were identified as in dispute.

On Dec. 20, a formal hearing was held at the school district administration building. At this hearing, both parties were afforded a full opportunity to present testimony, examine and cross-examine that testimony, introduce documentary evidence, and argue orally in support of their respective positions.

The first issue in dispute is salary. LAEA is proposing a step and column movement for one-half the 2012-2013 school year, beginning mid-year. They contend this would be approximately a 1.01 percent increase to the base. For the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years, they propose step and column movement plus a 5 percent improvement to the salary schedule.

LASD is seeking a total wage freeze for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years and proposes a step movement only in the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, which would be approximately a 2.02 percent and 2.11 percent increase, respectively.

In addition, the current agreement provides for years of service salary increases for professional employees who reach 20, 25, and 30 years of service. A professional employee who reaches 20 years of service gets $200 added to the salary schedule, 25 years of service gets $300 added, and 30 years of services gets $400 added. LAEA proposes to increase the amounts to $300 for 20 years, $600 for 25 years, and $900 for 30 years with one-half of the payment being made for 2012-2013 school year. LASD is seeking to totally eliminate any longevity payments from the collective bargaining agreement.

Krchnar concluded that the school district is neither wealthy nor poor. LASD seems to fall somewhere in the middle when compared to other districts in Carbon County.

Over the next several years, LASD will undertake some major capitol projects to repair several buildings, which could cost upward of $50 million and will have to borrow money to complete these projects.

In addition, it is projected that the Public School Employees' Retirement System (PSERS) contribution and the rising health care costs will deplete the current fund balance.

The fact-finder's recommendation is no step or column movement for the 2012-2013 school year; step movement only with no column movement for the 2013-2014 school year; step movement plus 1 percent added to the schedule with no column movement for the 2014-2015 school year; and step movement plus 1 percent added to the schedule with no column movement for the 2015-2016 school year.

In addition, it is recommended that the longevity provision continue as it currently exists with no changes.

The next issue is health care. LAEA is proposing no change from the current premium contribution rate which is 1 percent of the average Bachelor salary for a single person; 1.2 percent of the average Bachelor salary for a married couple; and 1.3 percent of the average Bachelor salary for a family.

LASD proposes to change both the rate and the criteria 1.5 percent of all employees' PSERS eligible compensation for a single person and 2.0 percent of all employees' PSERS eligible compensation for all dependents.

As for prescription co-pays, LASD is not seeking to make any changes to the current agreement:

Ÿ Retail (30-day supply): $15 for Tier I; $35 for Tier II; and $60 for Tier III.

Ÿ Specialty: $15 for Tier I; $35 for Tier II; and $60 for Tier III.

Ÿ 90-day (mail order): $30 for Tier I; $65 for Tier II; and $90 for Tier III.

LAEA proposes a reduction in co-pay amounts:

Ÿ Retail (30-day supply): $10 for Tier I; $20 for Tier II; and $40 for Tier III.

Ÿ Specialty: $10 for Tier I; $20 for Tier II; and $40 for Tier III.

Ÿ 90-day (mail order): $20 for Tier I; $40 for Tier II; and $80 for Tier III.

Krchnar recommends that the parties maintain the current premium contribution rates for the first three years of the new agreement.

However, in the 2015-2016 school year, his recommendation is to increase the contribution rates to 1.25 percent of the average Bachelor salary for a single person; 1.5 percent of the average Bachelor salary for a married couple; and 1.75 percent of the average Bachelor salary for a family.

In addition, it is recommended to continue the current co-pay amounts for the life of the new agreement.

The third issue is extra duty/co-curricular compensation. At the present time, this schedule is contained in the collective bargaining agreement. LAEA is proposing to increase each stipend by 1.5 percent for the 2013-2014 school year and again in the 2014-2015 school year. LASD does not want the bargaining process slowed down by this issue and suggests that it be dealt with outside the normal bargaining process.

According to Krchnar, this issue is not a mandatory subject of bargaining. Many school districts and their professional staff deal with this item outside the normal bargaining process so it does not impede a resolution of the more critical issues. Consequently, the fact-finder recommends that the parties designate two or three individuals from each side who are familiar with this issue to work outside of the bargaining process and make a recommendation on compensation and positions for adoption. The parties may include these recommendations in the agreement or via side-letter whichever the parties deem appropriate.

The next issue is retirement benefits. Currently, professional employees receive $100 per unused sick and personal days upon retirement. LASD is proposing to eliminate this benefit. LAEA wants to maintain this provision.

Krchnar finds that this issue is economic and can have a considerable cost associated to it in any given year. He contends that the way this provision is written and administered, it was not intended to be a retirement incentive but rather a severance benefit. This benefit has been the practice for some time in the school district and most professional employees have or will calculate this benefit into their decision if and when to retire.

According to the fact finder, it might be somewhat unfair to abolish this benefit at this time especially for those who have 25 or more years of service and were, in good faith, counting on this benefit. Therefore, Krchnar recommends that the parties maintain the status quo over the life of the new agreement.

The final issue is term of agreement. LASD is seeking a four-year contract. The school district contends that a four-year contract will help it better know what its costs will be over the next four-year period. The district claims this will be helpful due to the fact that there are some major expenditures occurring over the next several years.

LAEA is proposing a three-year agreement. The association does not oppose a four-year contract if there are some economic gains during that period. Krchnar recommends that a four-year contract be adopted from Sept. 1, 2012 to Aug. 31, 2016.

In conclusion, the fact finder recommends that any other matters not previously agreed upon or specifically addressed in his recommendations be withdrawn. Any agreements mutually made prior to the date of his report that are not specifically addressed in the report are recommended to be included as agreed upon in the agreement.

Lehighton Area School Board approved the fact-finder's report.

"We felt it was a fair attempt to come closer to an agreement with the professional staff," said LASD Superintendent Jonathan J. Cleaver. "Both negotiating teams have agreed to continue to work on settling the contract."

School board President Rocky Ahner added, "We already have dates scheduled to continue talks with the LAEA negotiating team."

"LAEA will continue to bargain in good faith with the LASD bargaining team until a settlement is achieved," said Boyle. "Based upon a post fact-finding meeting between the two teams, it would appear that an agreement is within reach."

Chief negotiator for LASD is Paul Blunt, esquire, from the Law Office of King, Spry, Herman, Freund, & Faul, LLC of Bethlehem. Negotiating for the teachers is Pennsylvania State Education Association UniServ representative Charlie Shaffer. He represents PSEA members in Carbon and Schuylkill counties.

The complete fact-finder's report can be viewed at www.dli.state.pa.us/plrb. Scroll down to "Fact-Finding Reports."