Striking teachers hold out "hope"

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Typical start to school year in labor-state

Teachers in the Duquesne City School District will put down picket signs and return to work if school officials begin negotiating toward a higher raise, union officials said Tuesday. But district officials believe the union is looking for money the district doesn't have.

The district's 49 teachers went on strike yesterday after one week of school, delaying a return for students after the Labor Day weekend. Duquesne is one of three districts in the state where teachers are striking and the first in Western Pennsylvania.

Tom Sturm, communication coordinator for the Duquesne Education Association, said teachers want to get back into classrooms but are tired of being paid lower wages than any other district in Allegheny County.

"We have to have hope," said Sturm, a school counselor in the district for 36 years and a class of 1967 alumnus. "Our teachers don't want to be on that picket line. They want to be in there teaching. We're willing to negotiate."

According to state Education Department records, teachers in Duquesne are the lowest paid in the county and a 19 percent raise requested by the union would make the average teaching salary there equal to the average in Clairton, which has the second-lowest paid teachers.

Duquesne has seen a lot of changes since being put under state control in 2000 for financial troubles, including a one-year stint under Pittsburgh Public Schools' control. Sturm said the district had 10 different superintendents and 34 elementary school principals in the past 30 years.

With an average salary of about $40,000, Duquesne teachers make in excess of $14,000 more than the average family in the city. The district tax office reports that the average household income in the distressed city is $25,898.

"I just don't know how a district such as Duquesne can do this," district Solicitor Bill Andrews said. The district, with 520 students, has a $15 million annual budget.

Sturm contends a 19 percent increase for teachers would cost the district about $400,000. The district proposed a 3 percent increase for the second consecutive year after a two-year wage freeze.

The strike means a state mediator must step in to restart negotiations.

One point of contention is the amount of money available in the distressed district. Sturm said the district's subsidy from the Pennsylvania Department of Education increased by $700,000 this year, but Andrews said the subsidy went up just $398,000.

Michael Race, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, could not verify either number. Race said the district's basic subsidy was increased by $298,000 this school year, but other programs have different increases. Each increase can be used only for certain programs and not necessarily teacher salaries, Race said.

The money is split among charter school reimbursements, special education programs, a 3 percent salary increase totaling $72,000 and the addition of extracurricular activities. Andrews said this year brought the reintroduction of instrumental music programs and middle school athletics.

"It doesn't even scratch what students in other districts have," Andrews said. "If this district is ever going to turn around to compete with other districts in the county, we've got to start introducing other things."

Lisa Collins moved to Duquesne about five years ago and enrolled her daughter, Tracey, in the district. She's not satisfied with the district's offerings and is considering sending her eighth-grader to a charter school.

"My daughter needs to be in school," Collins said from the porch of her Fourth Street home while watching 38 teachers picket just down the street. "They've got all these hurdles to get over, and they keep changing things. They need to shut it down."


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