John Audi used one word Monday morning to describe the feelings of Palmerton Area School District’s negotiating team on day one of a teachers strike.
“Frustrated,” said Audi, the district’s Pittston-based chief negotiator. “The district believes it has put forth an offer that changes the salary matrix to make it even for all teachers. We feel the money should be distributed more evenly and that is the major bone of contention.”
Palmerton Area Education Association President Tom Smelas said the teachers have also put forth what he considers to be a fair offer.
“Our proposal is affordable, it’s fair and involved no increase in taxpayer money,” Smelas said. “We don’t understand why (the district) is looking to abolish a salary schedule in use by 99 percent of school districts.”
Teachers and supporters spent the majority of what would have been the school day Monday walking outside the district administration building, many with signs stating “On Strike,” or “Striking For Less.”
“We would like to thank the community for the outpouring of support you have shown to us today,” the association posted on its Facebook page Monday. “Thirty-nine pizzas, lots of coffee, doughnuts, treats and hand warmers are just some of the items students, parents, grandparents, support staff and other supporters dropped off today. Thank you to the community businesses that opened up your restroom facilities for our use. Students also joined the picket line in a show of support for their teachers.”
The district believes its current offer of raising the starting salary to $50,000, providing every member, regardless of years of service, a 3.25 percent increase for each year of the contract, and a $1,500 stipend for attaining a master’s degree is more favorable for both union membership and the taxpayers. The proposal would also reduce or eliminate a $12,000 jump step, the district said. The jump step kicks in for teachers when they have reached a certain milestone in their employment.
“That jump step is the key,” Audi said. “In the last contract, some teachers got a 1 percent raise over four years and, on the high end, some got 30 percent. We can’t let that continue. Eleven people are up for the jump step right now, and I would venture to say that outside of those 11 people, every other one of their members would do better under our proposal.”
Teachers have proposed a salary schedule calling for increases of 3 percent in the first year, 4 percent in the second and third years, and 5 percent in the fourth year of the contract.
Smelas said the next negotiating session is in the district’s hands.
“We’re available anytime,” he said.
Meanwhile, Audi remains miffed at how a negotiating session ended on Friday.
“They walked out on us,” he said. “The mediator came back and said the teachers will not move off their proposal. So, we could meet with them, but what is the point if they don’t actually want to bargain.”
Both sides issued statements on the Friday session, with the association responding to a claim by the district that it walked away from the table without notifying the district.
“We left the meeting and notified the mediator to contact us at any time if the district had additional offers,” the association posted. “If the call doesn’t come, sadly we will be the only union in history to strike for less money.”
Smelas reiterated Monday that the offer from the teachers is $5,000 less than what the district is proposing.
Audi isn’t so sure the math adds up.
“Does anyone really think they are striking for $5,000 less?” Audi said Monday. “This is strictly about that jump step and how that extra money is distributed.”
In a release last week, the association said the district’s offer would pay a first-year teacher the same as a seven-year veteran Palmerton teacher.
By law, a first strike in a calendar year can last 10 days.
If there is no movement on either side, Audi said the next logical step would be mandatory nonbinding arbitration.
“I think that is where it will end up, because if the teachers didn’t do that, they would lose their right to a second strike this year,” he said.
A second strike is allowed, but 180 school days would have to be completed by June 30.