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Palmerton teachers reject offer

Teacher contract negotiations remain far from settled in Palmerton Area School District despite union and school board teams meeting three times without legal representation since Sept. 27.

Palmerton Board President Barry Scherer told the public Tuesday night the union turned down a deal offered on Oct. 2, while Palmerton Area Education Association President Tom Smelas said teachers countered with an offer on Oct. 16 that had not been acted upon by the district.

Scherer said the district offered teachers a 3 percent pay increase for each year of a four-year contract with retroactivity dating back to July 1, 2016.

The deal, Scherer said, would add $985,776 to the salary matrix over four years and establish a true 17-step matrix. Health care deductibles would be frozen at $200 for a single payer and $400 for a family. Biweekly health care premium shares would range from $40.25 for single coverage and $62.25 for family coverage in 2017-18 to $62.25 for single coverage and $85.25 for family coverage in 2019-20.

“We asked the teachers to meet us halfway in health care costs,” Scherer said.

According to numbers provided by the district, it would pay $24,981.24 for a family plan in the final year of the contract, while a teacher would pay 8.89 percent of that in the premium share.

While Scherer said the district would wait to hear from the teachers following the rejection of that offer, Smelas said a counterproposal had already been made.

“We gave a proposal on Oct. 16 and tonight is the first time we have heard anything from them,” Smelas said. “(Scherer) made the comment that it is our turn to give a proposal. That is absolutely false. We gave them a counterproposal on Oct. 16. I don’t know if this is a rejection or not.”

Scherer said the district initiated discussion with the teachers following an arbitrator’s nonbinding ruling in September.

“The board considered previous requests to meet without legal representation and proposed meeting with only the board team and PAEA team,” he said.

Those meetings took place on Sept. 27, Oct. 2 and Oct. 16.

Smelas said the difference between what the district was offering for a salary increase and what the arbitrator recommended played a large part in the rejection of the Oct. 2 offer by the union negotiating team.

“The arbitrator was around 3.3 or 3.4 percent and the board offered a flat 3 percent increase for each of the four years,” Smelas said. “That is not in line with what the arbitrator said so we have been trying to negotiate numbers. Evidently they want to go back to full-fledged negotiation. I’m disappointed in that. I thought our talks were going well up until tonight. This came as a total surprise to me.”

The average salary increase among school districts within Carbon County is 3.22 percent, according to the arbitration report.

Smelas also said the proposed increase to the premium share could result in some teachers taking home less pay. Palmerton Business Manager Ryan Kish said at Tuesday’s meeting that is not the case with a $416 premium share increase over a year failing to exceed the increase of any single cell on the salary matrix.

Two district residents, Ken Sutton and Doris Zellers, pleaded for the negotiations to come to an end.

“I think what the board proposed was legitimate enough to settle this,” Sutton said. “Why don’t we just move forward and get this off the table. Let the community get back to where we need to go. It is holding back progress in this district.”

Zellers, who said she is pro-teacher and knows the value they bring to the district, urged the teachers to take a look at what the rest of the community is paying, particularly when it comes to health care.

“I have a $6,000 deductible,” she said. “Let’s be reasonable. The community is so tired of this.”

According to bills obtained through a Right To Know request, the district paid the law firm of Sweet, Stevens, Katz and Williams LLP $43,286.40 between Jan. 1, 2016, and July 31, 2017, for matters related to teacher contract negotiations.

The firm charges $195 per hour for labor negotiations.

By far, the most expensive month came in June 2017 ($10,325.90) as the district prepared for nonbinding arbitration.

Smelas, meanwhile, said the only costs incurred by the teachers union was for arbitration. The district and union split the arbitration bill, each paying $3,750.

“All of our other costs are covered by annual dues,” Smelas said.

A neutral arbitrator, Walt De Treux of Philadelphia, said he sided with the teachers’ union because of the absence of retroactivity in the district’s last best final offer.

De Treux also “suggested the association consider further negotiations with a counteroffer to the district’s salary schedule proposal.”

During arbitration, the district offered a 9.71 percent salary increase over four years with no retroactive increase for the 2016-17 school year.

Meanwhile, the association proposed a 16.35 percent increase over four years, including 3.06 percent for 2016-17.

In September, Palmerton’s board, with two members absent, unanimously rejected the arbitrator’s recommendation.

The teachers contract in Palmerton expired June 30, 2016. Teachers went on strike for two weeks in January.