10/5/07

Teachers strike OK'd in PA, district ready to operate

The union that represents Quakertown Community Schools' support personnel has authorized its members to call a strike if a contract settlement can't be reached. Union members on Saturday voted 123 to 7, with two abstentions, to let members call an emergency meeting to seek a strike vote if needed, said Gary Smith, a representative with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, based in Montgomeryville.

The vote "was not a strike vote. It simply allows us to move to that step if negotiations fail to move forward," said Smith, who is the PSEA liaison representing the support services union.

Quakertown support staff employees provide school lunches, perform maintenance and custodial duties, fill secretarial services and serve as classroom instructional aides. The previous four-year contract ended June 30, but employees continue to work under the terms of the expired contract.

In a letter to parents Wednesday, Superintendent Lisa Andrejko wrote that a strike by the Quakertown Educational Support Personnel Association was possible, but not imminent.

"At this time QESPA has not yet informed the district of an actual date of a strike," Andrejko said in the letter.

It said the union is required by law to give the superintendent 48 hours notice of a strike.

Andrejko said the school board negotiates contracts, and she is not directly involved in those negotiations.

"We have a plan if the worst happens, and the support staff goes on strike," Andrejko said. She declined to offer full details of the plan, but said schools would stay open.

"Students may have to bring in bag lunches," she said. "Some services would be diminished. Office phones would need to be manned by principals and other managers."

Andrejko said the district could not hire strikebreakers -- outside people to fill positions -- while support staff are engaged in a work stoppage.

"We determine what essential services are, and do our best to fill them with administrative staff," Andrejko said.

Striking workers would not be paid. Smith said retroactive pay could become another negotiating issue if the workers strike.

"We want to work with the district and negotiate with them, but their proposal and ours are still night and day," union president James Mayer said.

Mayer said that since negotiations began in January, school board members have missed meetings or did not come prepared.

"The way we've been treated during this process is disrespectful to the employees," Smith said. "They wouldn't treat teachers like this."

Mayer said school board members on the negotiating team are Paul Stepanoff, Kelly Van Valkenburg and Manuel Alfonso. Reached by telephone, Alfonso said he couldn't speak about negotiations. Efforts to reach Van Valkenburg and Stepanoff were unsuccessful.

Smith said negotiations are all about money.

In June 2006, the school board adopted an $80.4 million budget that increased taxes for the owner of a home assessed at the district average of $25,327 to about $2,994 -- an increase of about $62.

Mayer said the support services payroll part of the budget is less than 1 percent.

Under this year's budget, salaries and benefits for all district employees represented 66.6 percent of the spending plan, or $54.2 million, according to school Business Manager Sylvia Lenz.

The four-year teachers pact will increase starting salaries from $41,222 in 2006-07 to $43,745 in 2009-10. Top salaries will go from $92,069 in the first year to $97,705 in the final year.

"We're not looking to be at the top," Mayer said. "We just want to be able to keep up with inflation."

(mcall.com)

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