10/16/07

Teachers union strike starts smoothly

The first day of a possible month-long strike in the Seneca Valley School District went smoothly, with no incidents or reports of problems from either side. Classes were canceled for nearly 7,600 students as teachers hit the picket lines at 7 a.m. at all nine of the district's schools. About 20 to 25 teachers were picketing at each school, working in shifts.

"Things went really well," said Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. "We had overwhelming support from parents and even some students," Mr. Santicola said. "We'd rather have been in the classroom, but this has been a strong strike so far."

Linda Andreassi, school district spokeswoman, confirmed that there were no incidents.

Police from Jackson, Cranberry, Zelienople, Harmony and Evans City were at the picket lines to maintain order.

Reaction to the strike from residents within the district was predictably mixed.

Dorothy Casey, 45, a prep cook, has lived in Cranberry all her life and was a product of the school system in which her nephew is enrolled.

"Our taxes keep going up, but my paycheck doesn't go up. I understand that they need a raise, but not what they're going for. That's totally outrageous, and somewhere down the line, I'm going to be paying for it."

Karen Winn, 56, of Cranberry, works part time at American Eagle outfitters in the Cranberry Mall. She said she doesn't think strikes are a necessary part of life any more, but she feels for the teachers.

"I see both viewpoints," she said. "They certainly deserve an increase. I think they work hard for what they make, most of them. But the reality of it is, I think, they need to realign themselves a little bit. There could be some concessions on the health care plan."

Carlos Cefaratti, 51, a sale s representative in Cranberry, has a daughter who attends Seneca Valley Middle School. He said he knows some teachers and has spoken with others.

"I agree with the teachers," he said. "The board [members have] really poorly managed this. They could have done this a long time ago. Sit down like adults and do the right thing. They can do a better job. They are looking like schmucks.

"The truth is, they don't educate my kids. The teachers do."

Teachers handed out flyers yesterday, which contained the teachers' viewpoint on the negotiations process thus far, as well as what they are asking for in a new contract.

The district's 575 teachers have been working without a contract since June 30, 2006. The major disagreement is over salaries, with the district offering an average 4 percent annual increase for a five-year contract. The teachers' most recent request is for an average of 6 percent per year. The average teacher's salary in Seneca Valley is $54,949.

In addition to wage increases, health benefits continue to be a sticking point in the negotiations.

There have been no new negotiation sessions arranged by state mediator Bob Lavery.

Tom King, an attorney representing the district in negotiations, said Mr. Lavery told him he would only call another meeting if he felt progress might be made.

"But at this point, I don't see that happening," Mr. King said. "We are still offering 4 percent -- that's our maximum we're willing to go -- and the teachers are still asking for over 6 percent. They've made it clear they are not willing to move on that and neither are we, so I just don't see the point (of further negotiations)."

Under state law, teachers would have to end the strike in time for students to receive 180 days of instruction by June 15. The state Department of Education was expected to determine a date, most likely in early November, when teachers must return to work.

Although the strike has disrupted classes in Seneca Valley, the school district said all extra-curricular activities and sports events will continue as planned, as well as all community activities that were scheduled within school buildings.

(post-gazette.com)

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