Bruce Koch, president of the Lehighton Area Education Association, issued the following press release this week.

"Teachers in the Lehighton Area School District have returned to their classrooms this past week despite the expiration of their current contract."

Negotiations between the Lehighton Area Education Association and the Lehighton Area School Board began eight months ago. Although there has been progress made, a settlement has not yet been reached.

The LAEA negotiations team received authorization of a strike by the teacher's union this past June. While the LAEA understands that continuing to work without a strike may be in the best interest of the students and school district, it cannot be ruled out in the future.

"At times the negotiations have been moving in a positive manner," said Koch. "We hope that we can reach a settlement in the very near future. Our dedicated teachers will continue to work under the current agreement as long as negotiations continue to move in a constructive way."

While the students have just returned to school, teachers have been preparing their rooms and getting ready for the start of the year, said Koch.

"Our teachers have come in and been very professional," said Koch. "They've been very positive, attended meetings, in-service programs, and prepared for the first day."

Negotiations are continuing with meetings scheduled this week and next week between the board and the teacher's union.

Only a few years ago the teachers' union faced an impasse with the board that lasted for 20 months.

Koch said that he is hopeful it does not have to mirror this scenario during this round of negotiations.

Koch said that because a contract has not been reached, he had suggested that "Meet the Teachers" night should have been postponed.

"Since we're so close to finalizing a contract, postponing Parent Teacher Night would have been the wiser choice, not canceling it," said Koch. "Obviously we want a contract.

"Parent Teacher Night should not have been scheduled," he said. "Obviously the parents want to meet the teachers and the teachers want to meet the parents."

Koch said he has a responsibility to get a contract for the approximately 200 teachers.

Koch has been serving as president of the LAEA for the past four years

"Normally it is a two-year term, but when there is (crisis) contract negotiations, the by-laws state that the president remain until a contract is signed," said Koch.

"Once the contract is settled, the vice president will take over," he added.

Koch has been an industrial technology teacher in the Lehighton School District since 1994.

Koch said that the two sides are very close to settlement.

"We're close with salary percentage the final issue and clarifications with some language," said Koch.

"We're fortunate here in Lehighton. We have good kids here in Lehighton. No question about it. I've taught in a couple other districts and the kids just don't compare like they do here in Lehighton. I think that is because the parents support the educational process. They support good discipline. That is why we can work hard to keep the PSSA tests up and the AYP (annual yearly progress) up. It's the caliber of students and the caliber of parents that we can do what we do. It could be a tougher job."

Koch said, "People understand that we are committed to the kids, but at the same time I have an obligation to get a contract for the approximately 200 teachers in the district and I think it's going to happen and I think it's going to happen soon. I think it will happen soon because we're working well together.

"I can't see that going the 20-month thing. I know we don't want that and I know the board doesn't want that," he added. "We're going to put that behind us shortly. I don't want the public to think that we, at the last minute pulled the carpet out from underneath the district by saying we were not going to attend 'Meet the Teachers Night' without a contract, because they were told that in June. It should have never been advertised when it was. They should have given us more time," concluded Koch.

A call to Frank Ruch, spokesperson for the Lehighton Area School Board, was unanswered.