3/29/08

Keystone State manages teacher strikes

As teachers in Cumberland Valley (PA) School District threatened to walk out earlier this week, a midstate lawmaker braced himself for a flurry of phone calls and e-mails demanding action on his bill that makes teacher strikes illegal.

When Downingtown teachers in Chester County walked out of the classroom last month, Rep. Todd Rock, R-Waynesboro, said he received some calls. He avoided a flood of calls this week when Cumberland Valley and its teachers reached a tentative deal.

But Rock said every strike renews public interest in his legislation.

"People say it's not fair that my kids are put out of school. ... Why are they using my child as a bargaining chip to settle a contract? That is not the way to do it. I agree with that 100 percent," said Rock, a former teacher.

Unfortunately, he said the public interest hasn't translated into legislative support for his proposal.

His bill allows for more transparency and forced meetings during the bargaining process until a settlement is reached. It also imposes penalties on teachers who participate in a walkout.

Pennsylvania is one of 13 states where teacher strikes are legal.

Pennsylvania teachers almost every year stage more walkouts than in any other state.

Districts entered this school year with 216 labor contracts expiring or having expired within the previous four years, according to Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

As of Wednesday, four of them experienced strikes this school year, affecting nearly 23,000 students.

Sen. Robert Mellow, D-Lackawanna, also has legislation pending to ban strikes, proposing an eight-month timeline for negotiations.

If the two sides do not resolve their differences, each would submit its last best offer to a county judge who would make a final determination that would be binding.

Neither Mellow's bill nor Rock's proposal has the support of the state's largest teachers union.

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said Cumberland Valley's strike would have been the fifth strike this school year out of the 200-plus school employee groups who are bargaining.

Efforts to repeal the state law -- enacted 38 years ago -- that gave teachers the right to strike are unlikely to become law, the school boards association said.

Instead, the school boards' group wants to improve the current law that limits lengths of strikes to ensure a 180-day school year is completed by June 30, said Tim Allwein, an association spokesman.

One idea would require all offers to be aired publicly and reviewed by an independent financial analyst to determine the financial impact.

"A lot of the reasons why these things take so long is initial offers are so far apart. If there were a process by which both sides knew initial offers would be scrutinized by an independent party, both sides might be a little closer," Allwein said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ed Rendell signaled that a fresh look at the teacher's right to strike law might be in order.

Rock said he is convinced the time is right, even without hearing from Cumberland Valley parents.

"Teachers get a bad rap because they go on strike," he said. "They lose the support of the community and they are looked at as greedy and selfish. I don't want that to happen. I don't think it's fair. But teachers are afraid to let go of the right to strike and lose that leverage."

(pennlive.com)

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