Strike-Free Education Act: D.O.A.

Though Pennsbury (PA) school directors voted unanimously to support a bill against teacher strikes Thursday, the state school boards association doesn't think a legislative change will happen anytime soon. If passed, the Strike-Free Education Act, House Bill 1369, would make teacher strikes and lockouts illegal, as well as create a more detailed timeline and rules for contract negotiation. It was unveiled in early June 2007.

“I think it'll take a couple of years to really change things. It may become more of an issue over the next five to seven years,” said Tim Allwein, assistant executive director of the state school boards association.

However, Allwein has been hearing louder rumblings lately against teacher strikes.

“I think it's brought on by Act 1, which limits the taxation authority of school districts,” he said. “It's something school directors have to deal with and put in front of unions.”

The state's Act 1 sets the ceiling for tax increases at 4.4 percent. A board needs to apply for exceptions for uncontrollable costs like teacher contracts, but they can only stretch so far. Further increases can pass only with a voter referendum, but that's unlikely to pass, say school directors.

“Unfortunately what people say is that unions have pretty much disregarded Act 1 limits and said that's the board's problem,” said Allwein.

He's not aware of a school district besides Pennsbury adopting a resolution for this particular bill.

Simon Campbell, president of StopTeacherStrike Inc and resident of Lower Makefield, says the school boards association has been spinning its wheels. He has been urging individual boards to publicly take a stand against teacher strikes since 2005. That's when Pennsbury had a teacher strike for 21 days.

Currently, 13 states allow teacher strikes.

The bill, with support of local state Rep. Dave Steil, R-31, not only makes strikes illegal, but revises the process of contract negotiations. For example, contract proposals and negotiations would be more transparent to the public. If both sides have not agreed to a new contract by June 16, then the mandate would require four negotiating sessions per month. Both sides' negotiators would have to answer questions publicly every six weeks.

“Any unreasonable negotiating position would be exposed to public scrutiny,” according to a public relations document from the office of Rep. Todd Rock, R-Franklin. Rock sponsored the bill.

The bill also removes binding arbitration, which effectively obligates both sides to defer to the decision of a judge or panel, even if it means the board has to dig deeper into its coffers.

“It strips away our power to control expenses,” Pennsbury school board President Gregory Lucidi said at the meeting Thursday.

At the end of last year's contract negotiations, Pennsbury requested nonbinding arbitration so it wouldn't have to accept the recommendations.

Lucidi said Friday that the bill sets a good timeline, too.

“A timeline is very important as to how the whole thing plays out. Right now, the law doesn't give a rigorous comprehensive timeline. There's nothing to force you to go on. Districts can go years without a contract in place,” he said.

However, teachers are annoyed by the resolution.

“The anti-strike resolution was mostly symbolic, to placate vocal members of the community,” Pennsbury teachers union president George Miller said Thursday. He's also a math teacher at Pennsbury High School East. “I think it's a shame and an inflammatory vote. We're a year and a half from a contract negotiation. It was a mistake to vote now. It flies in the face of honest and open negotiations.”

Michelle Marcinaus, a school system psychologist and vice president of the Pennsbury teachers union, said this resolution will pressure teachers long before negotiations start next January.

“It seems like the board's looking to have a contentious relationship with teachers. It's not us against them. Negotiations are difficult already,” she said. “The teachers who work here love kids. This decision hurts morale.”

Campbell countered, “It's hard for a school board to control taxes when they are being threatened by strikes. ... This sends a very public message that we need to control property taxes and children need to be protected.”

In the meantime, says Allwein, the school boards association has formed a task force on labor relations. It will examine legislative platforms and make recommendations about whether they need to change.

“We want to make sure we hear from all sides that have a stake in this issue before we make our recommendations,” said Allwein.

Steil represents Lower Makefield, Yardley, Newtown, Newtown Township and District 2 of Upper Makefield.


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