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Both sides at odds over teachers' pact

Published March 24. 2010 05:00PM

Commencement date for the Lehighton Area High School class of 2010 will remain June 4.

Lehighton school directors failed to make a motion that would change the date to Friday, June 11 after listening to the pleas of senior student Jourdan Semmel and her mother, Teri Semmel, to keep the June 4 date. Since no member made the motion to change it, the date of June 4 will stand.

Semmel said as senior parent she was concerned with the changing date of graduation because the entertainment has been booked for the all night party and she said the cost is expensive and cannot be rebooked, and that the Lehighton Armory would not be available for the June 11 date.

Semmel said that she feels the seniors have given up enough this year and should not have to give up everything.

"They are having their senior outing and they have to be back by 3 p.m.," said Semmel.

Semmel added that her daughter's class went to Hershey Park in eighth grade and she feels this year's senior outing is a step backward.

Superintendent James Kraky said that officials are looking at staffing the senior day activities with volunteers.

"I want the volunteers to know the children because I don't want to just throw this out to anyone," he said.

Kraky said that the board would also require background checks on any volunteers. He said the issue is under discussion.

While commencement and senior outing were on most minds, the big issue was the expired teachers' and para professional contracts. The 2 groups have been working without a contract, the teachers since August and the para professionals for the past two years.

Bruce Koch, president of the Lehighton Area Education Association, questioned a personnel item on the agenda.

"For this board to even remotely consider such a motion is irresponsible, misguided and total misrepresentation of the truth to both employees and the taxpayers of the district," said Koch.

The motion read, "The administration investigated and determined what professionals and paraprofessionals positions, courses of study and programs could be eliminated to fund a professional teacher contract increase as proposed by the Fact Finder and report its findings and alternatives at the next school board meeting."

Koch added, "You suggest that positions and courses of students need to be eliminated to fund the salary increases as proposed by the recently completed fact finding report. What you're not telling, and have not mentioned in recent communications with the media, is that you raised taxes to cover a 4 percent increase in salaries. The fact finding report, of which we agreed to, does not even come to 4 percent. So I ask you, and so should every taxpayer in Lehighton, where's the rest of the money you budgeted for salaries that you're not using for salaries going?"

Koch said that while the board claims hardship, they hired a superintendent without a doctoral degree at a salary and benefits of over $130,000, which is higher than salary of the previous superintendent.

He also said that the superintendent lives outside the district and pays no taxes to Lehighton.

He also noted that the district funded an entertainment system in the superintendent's office, hired a business manager at a salary of $84,460 with a clause to give him a 12 percent raise within the first year without knowing that he was going to work out, hired an assistant business manager for $57,000 to assist the business manager in a district of less than 200 teachers and 2,500 students, contracted to use a neighboring district's business manager on projects as needed, hired a supervisor of special education for $82,000, hired a new assistant supervisor of special education for $63,000 and new board room furniture for $20,000, and hired an Act 93 secretary for $32,000.

"This and so much more was all done while we were suffering from the worst economic downturn in our country's history since the great depression," said Koch. "You don't want the truth to be known and that your priorities are top heavy administration and not quality education for our children."

Koch added, "You further suggest eliminating para professionals in your motion. They have nothing to do with our contract, This is just another tactic to strike fear in the hearts of your dedicated employees and completely destroy the little morale we have left."

Koch said that the teachers and support professionals made the district what it is.

"We have met AYP, our graduation rate is stellar, and the number of students going on to college and schools of higher education have not been greater. Now you want to erode the very fiber that sews together and produces the results that make you look good. We have made this district great, we know it and the parents know it."

Koch said that it was time to appreciate the teachers and support personnel.

"Don't you tell me or any taxpayer that you can't settle a contract without cutting staff or programs," said Koch. "Acknowledge the good job we do and stop the threats, stop the intimidation, stop the lies. The community has paid the bill for keeping Lehighton one of the best educational systems in Pennsylvania."

The audience was filled with teaching staff who broke out into applause when he finished.

Speaking for the support staff was Diane Koch.

"We have been negotiating a contract for the last two years. We felt we were making progress. We were doing our job and trying not to make waves. In January, we were given an ultimatum that we had 10 days to sign a contract. For two years we have remained silent, but much to my surprise I began getting phone calls from people on Saturday who saw the agenda and we can no longer be silent. We are not the teachers' contract, we are our own contract. All we've been asking for is fair wages. Some of our people work two or three jobs to stay off food stamps. It is time to fix this."

Attorney William Schwab, the board solicitor, said that the board has been negotiating for the two contracts and the board had given both associations its best and final offer months ago and for whatever reason, the leadership has never taken the information back to the membership.

John Freund of King, Spry, Herman, Freund and Faul, LLC, was hired by the school to be the fact-finder for the two associations.

Schwab said that Freund was looking at the option of eliminating some staff and para professional programs with the hope the board could settle one contract by seeing if there was an alternative.

Schwab said the fact-finder suggested that the motion gives alternatives and doesn't mean it will eliminate anything. Schwab said that the fact-finders initial report didn't give more than a 4 percent increase, which is a true statement.

"When we cost things out the business office said that in order to get to the 3.25 percent recommended requirement to get a step increase, the 3.5 increase would actually be a 5.6 percent increase; and over the life of the three-year contract, it would be a 12 percent increase for professional staff," said Schwab.

"This is how much its going to cost. I heard statements saying we budgeted 4 percent increases last year, but the budget itself is not a true amount of money, because in actuality the dollars the district has to spend from earned income tax is less because the district received, $200,000 less collected for first six months in total income."

Schwab said that the Lehighton area community lost $10 million in income last year and that is the fact the district has to deal with.

He added that he was correcting a statement that the administration received a double digit salary increase.

"The contact averages of administration is a 1.9 percent increase," he said.

He also disputed a comment that the superintendent gets paid to come to work.

"He doesn't get mileage to come to work," said Schwab. "He gets a set amount each month no matter how much he drives."

Schwab said that the former board negotiated the contract.

"That is what we have to live with," he said.

"We need to step forward and decide what we can and cannot afford, which is limited to real estate taxes under Act 1. The fact finders report says we have $340,000 increase from the 1 mill, and if we paid $330,000 for salary increases, that would give us only $10,000 for increases in utilities and maintenance," Schwab added.

"The money has to come from somewhere, and if we have to eliminate a program where a teacher and a paraprofessional work together, that is where that came from because the two are intertwined. This motion was to give us as many options as possible."

Annette Boyle, LAEA negotiating staff, said that the teaching association accepted the fact-finders report in January and it was accepted by the membership 147 to 12, but that the administration failed to accept the fact-finders report and they rejected it.

Boyle also noted that when it was voted to give the superintendent traveling expenses, the majority of the board members that voted for that motion are still seated on the board.

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