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2017 Review: Still no teachers pact

A teachers strike and removal of its high school principal dominated 2017 headlines in Palmerton Area School District.

Contract dispute

Just nine days into the year, Palmerton teachers hit the picket line for a two-week work stoppage.

The district’s previous contract with its teachers expired June 30, 2016, and with the clock about to expire on 2017, the two sides still have no deal in place.

Palmerton’s board of directors unanimously rejected an arbitrator’s nonbinding recommendation in September.

The neutral arbitrator, Walt De Treux of Philadelphia, said he sided “by the slimmest of margins” with the teachers’ union, the Palmerton Area Education Association, because of the absence of retroactivity in the district’s last best final offer.

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.

Health insurance proposals were “significantly different” for the two sides.

“The association proposed a plan as part of a health insurance trust,” De Treux wrote.

“The district rejected the prospect of joining the trust, but generally matched the plan design of the association. The district added a proposed high deductible plan that eliminates any premium share for employees. The district’s PPO proposal includes significantly higher premium shares than the association’s proposal, which provides for only modest increases in premium share. A resolution likely lies in between the proposals,” De Treux continued.

During negotiations, the district proposed eliminating a salary schedule and replacing it with increased starting salary and across-the-board wage increases.

Teachers, meanwhile, were “adamantly opposed to its elimination and refused to budge from its initial wage proposal until the district agreed to continuation of a salary schedule.”

According to Palmerton Board President Barry Scherer, the union turned down a deal offered on Oct. 2.

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.

On Oct. 16, according to Palmerton Area Education Association President Tom Smelas, the union countered that offer.

“While advising that the Oct. 2 offer was not acceptable, the association once again modified its prior position, moving closer to the district’s position,” Smelas said. “The association anticipated a response to our proposal. Instead, we received their letter which simply reiterated their terms from Oct. 2, with additional conditions being added.”

Smelas also said the association informed the board “it would wait to hear from them as to how they wished to proceed.”

Principal removed

On April 28, Husar filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. Middle District Court claiming retaliation by Palmerton Superintendent Scot Engler and the district.

It was her third lawsuit filed against the parties.

In the complaint, Husar said she received a three-day suspension for “alleged improper handling of a school bus investigation” on April 19, one day after oral arguments in her Carbon County Court case.

Husar’s attorneys claim she continues to suffer emotional distress, anxiety, mental stress, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of income and other financial losses.

An appeal hearing was held behind closed doors, to protect privacy of students involved, on July 26, when the board unanimously upheld the suspension.

Lawyers for both sides argued their case in front of an out-of-town hearing officer, Christopher Lantz of Wellsboro.

The district hired Lantz in June at a rate of $185 per hour plus expenses and mileage.

Husar was escorted from her office on Sept. 7. The next day, multiple students staged a walkout in protest of the action.

“At the conclusion of the school day, Mrs. Husar did surrender her district keys to a team of administrators and was escorted from the high school complex,” board President Barry Scherer confirmed.

In a letter sent to Husar on Oct. 6, Engler recommended Husar be dismissed from employment based on over 20 charges including “making false statements about Engler and failing to adequately address or inform Engler of ethnicity-based harassment complaints, which led to a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission complaint being filed against the district.”

Husar’s lawyer, Mark Bufalino, disagreed with the dismissal attempt.

“Mr. Engler manufactured charges of immorality, insubordination, dereliction of duty, harassment and intimidation,” Bufalino wrote.

A hearing in front of the school board was to take place Oct. 17, but was called off per an agreement between lawyers for Husar, the district and Engler.

According to the latest case management track released by U.S. District Judge Robert Mariani, all fact discovery in the federal lawsuit should be completed by Jan. 31, 2018, while all expert discovery should be completed by late August 2018.

Other district headlines

• In an ongoing federal lawsuit against the district, former kindergarten teacher Lauren Smith’s attorney was granted leave from the case after he claimed she “completed at least two applications for employment after her discharge from Palmerton in which she knowingly misrepresented that she had not been discharged from any prior employment.”

Smith was fired in early 2015 by an 8-0 board vote in Palmerton. In her lawsuit, filed in December 2015, Smith claimed she was wrongly fired over a book of drawings she had made.

On Nov. 27, after Smith did not get a new attorney for the case, Judge Jeffrey Schmehl granted the district until Jan. 19 to file for summary judgment in the case.

• Thomas McLaughlin, former Weatherly Area School District superintendent, was hired Jan. 3 as Palmerton’s human resources director.

His beginning salary was set at $85,000.

• Palmerton’s board unanimously approved a full-day kindergarten program in February and it was implemented at the start of the 2017-18 school year.

• In April, Palmerton unanimously approved four contracts, including general construction, to Penn Builders Inc. ($8,669,350); plumbing construction to Myco Mechanical Inc. ($963,900); heating, ventilation and air conditioning construction to JBM Mechanical Inc. ($2,384,100) and electrical construction to George J. Hayden ($993,600).

Work included upgrading the existing athletic stadium to a synthetic turf field, adding an eight-lane synthetic track, bleachers, earthwork, utility improvements and the installation of underground detention systems. The district held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the stadium in November.

A softball field was added adjacent to a 13,000-square-foot addition to the junior high school. The addition includes classrooms, cafeteria, kitchen, administration offices and technology center.

•Engler received a contract extension in August by a 7-2 vote, taking him through June 30, 2022. The extension included a 4 percent raise to Engler’s $117,210 salary for 2017-18 and a 2 percent raise each year after that.

•Board President Chuck Myers resigned from the board in September citing “personal reasons.” Earl Paules, who received the most votes in May’s primary election, was tabbed to fill the open seat, while Scherer was voted board president. In December, newcomers Kathy Lendvay Fallow and Katherine Baumgardt joined the board, replacing Darlene Yeakel and Sue Debski.

Jerry Oleksiak president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, speaks with striking Palmerton teachers on Jan. 13. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO