Palmerton board member talks out about teacher contract
One Palmerton Area School District director said last week the district will “go broke” if it gives in to the requests of its teachers during contract negotiations, while the teachers’ union is waiting to hear the board’s next step.
Palmerton teachers have been without a contract since June 30, 2016, and while both sides said they have made recent offers, the matter remains without a resolution.
“We can’t give them what they want or we’ll be broke,” director Earl Paules told the crowd at a Nov. 21 board meeting. “I guarantee you the board won’t back down. This could go on forever and it’s a shame that they won’t budge a bit.”
Board President Barry Scherer said the district, on Oct. 2, 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/$400.
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.”
The Oct. 31 letter, signed by Scherer, informed the union that the district would pull its offer on Nov. 10.
“The district requests that the proposal be taken to the full membership for a vote since it became evident at the last board meeting that the team did not do so,” Scherer wrote. “Should this offer be rejected, it will be withdrawn and the district will be left with no choice but to start anew.”
Smelas said, “While the letter made it clear that the board’s proposal would be automatically revoked if not accepted by Nov. 10, the association advised the board on Nov. 13 that their offer was not acceptable. The board was also advised at that time that the association would wait to hear from them as to how they wished to proceed. We continue to believe that Palmerton people should, and can, resolve Palmerton problems.”
Paules called the Oct. 2 offer “very good,” noting the $2.4 million the district pays toward the teachers’ health insurance.
“They turned down a $400 deductible,” Paules said. “I just don’t get it. We’re here to represent the taxpayers. We’ll dig in hard, and I don’t care how long it takes. People are out there scratching every day to make their mortgage payments and figuring out how to put food on the table.”
District resident Amanda Zellers said she doesn’t think the union’s full membership is getting enough input on negotiations.
“I think the people pulling the strings are not in agreement with it, but if you allowed all of the teachers to vote, I think they would be more than pleased with the district’s offer,” she said.
Smelas said Monday, “The members are prepared to vote when a tentative agreement, successfully crafted by both negotiating teams, is presented to them and not before.”
Meanwhile, Doris Zellers told the board to “give the teachers what we get if they aren’t happy with what was proposed.”
Like Zellers, Palmerton solicitor and labor counsel John Audi painted a clear divide between the teachers and their union.
“This board respects the teachers and everything they do,” Audi said. “The teachers are wonderful educators and we are proud of them. They should not be criticized in any regard. It is the position the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the local union has taken that has put us in this bind.”
Another Palmerton resident, Jeff Henry, agreed with Paules about the financial side of negotiations, but took issue with what he felt were disrespectful comments toward teachers.
Paules, in comparing teachers to those in other professions, said teachers “work 4.5 hours a day and make more than administrators dollar for dollar and hour for hour.”
“I think you’re oversimplifying what teachers do,” Henry told Paules. “There is no need to grandstand. I don’t agree with the teachers on this contract either, but we just had parent conferences and I’ve seen them spend extra time with families. This kind of disrespectful rhetoric doesn’t help things.”