Snow buries Penn Hills strike

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Penn Hills teachers had hoped to draw attention to their five-month-old contract dispute with the district when they went out on strike Feb. 4, and for one day it worked.

But before a new negotiating session could be convened the next day, the worst winter storm to hit the region in 17 years took the focus off the strike and put it on dealing with downed trees, no power and no heat for everyone in the municipality.

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ALL FOR ONE —Administrative Assistant Vickie Pollard walks the picket line as Penn Hills teachers go on strike Feb. 4. They agreed to return to work Feb. 10, though an agreement on a new contract has not been reached.

When the teachers announced an end to the strike Feb. 9, a second blast of snow made that moot as well because classes were cancelled due to the weather. Add to that the fact that with state law requiring 180 days of student instruction, by waiting until February the teachers only had a five-day window in which to strike.

“Yeah, it was sort of the strike that wasn’t, but we had a strategy in mind and people are aware of the issues,” said Butch Santicola, Penn Hills Education Association spokesman. “It’s more than just money they want to cut. It’s seniority, certification—they want to reconfigure everything.”

School Board President Joe Bailey said negotiations have been stalled because the union is unwilling to compromise. He said the district’s obligation is to provide students with the best possible education.

“We’ve been willing to negotiate, but they are not meeting us halfway,” said Bailey. “They keep bringing the same demands that we can’t meet. For instance, their initial proposal was a 15 percent raise. In my wildest dreams I couldn’t make that up. The last one was between 5.3 and 5.8 percent for five years. That’s still not possible from our perspective.”

The contract expired in September and parties have been negotiating since December. Bailey said union negotiators rejected the district’s last offer, a five-year proposal worth more than $10.3 million, and didn’t even take it to its membership. He also said they rejected State Labor Relations Board arbitration.

Santicola said he would not discuss the specifics of any proposals made by the union and added that the board proposed eliminating the teacher evaluation system in the old contract just to implement one that would allow the district to pick and choose which teachers to lay off.

“We were the ones who asked for fact-finding, and the district asked us to put it off. And they present everything as a tentative agreement so that when we say no, we look bad,” he said. “Yes, we lost a lot of leverage by waiting so long into the year to go out. But we thought we were going to get an agreement, so we waited.”

Bailey said no new talks have been scheduled as yet.

“In terms of the strike, yes we did sort of dodge a bullet with the storm. I mean it was over almost as soon as it started,” he said. “But we’ll be having talks, and the process will be as urgent as (the PHEA) would like.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com)

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