Perkiomen Valley union, school district disagree about salary step schedule

The head of the Perkiomen Valley Education Association has responded to recent remarks by the school board president pointing to the union for the fact the calendar for the upcoming year will have classes begin after Labor Day.

The PVEA represents about 435 teachers and “professionally certified staff,” such as nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists and librarians, explained its president, William McGill, in a recent interview. He said that all but a very small number of the employees are full time.

The PVEA’s current three-year contract with the district was approved in March 2011, retroactive to Sept. 1, 2010, and runs through this coming Aug. 31.

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McGill explained that the salary grid under the contract sets compensation at 15 “steps” reflecting the number of years of employment. As the length of employment increases, an individual moves up from one step to another, with compensation adjusted accordingly.

Not all new employees covered by the contract are hired at the first step, McGill said. For example, an individual with previous teaching experience would begin at a higher step. Additionally, McGill said that each step is divided into columns, in which compensation is varied according to what credentials, such as advanced degrees, an individual holds.

McGill said the district has had the same number of steps and columns for compensation in place for at least the past 25 years. What has changed over time, he added, was that the level of pay provided for each cell in the salary grid has been revised to reflect the outcome of contract negotiations.

The topic of the contract’s salary steps had come up at the school board’s Feb. 4 meeting, when the proposed 2013-14 calendar was reviewed. Under the calendar, which the board approved the following week, the first day of classes is Sept. 4.

During the Feb. 4 meeting, Board President Lori Snyder read from a written statement explaining the rationale for the calendar. On the one hand, she said that starting the school year after Labor Day reflected the results of a community survey. Snyder also added that, if the school year were to begin before the expiration of the teachers’ current contract, the district would be obligated to increase their pay according to the step schedule in the agreement. To do so would be irresponsible, Snyder said, given the $5 million to $6 million gap the district faced in the budget plans for 2013-14.

Snyder said that board negotiators had asked the PVEA to forgo the application of the salary step schedule, in return for removing a professional development day. However, she added that it was “disappointing” that the union “did not accept our offer.”

When subsequently interviewed, McGill said case law had established that, if the school year started before the current contract had expired, teachers had to be given step movement. He also described the contractual provisions for compensation as a promise the school district made to employees at the time of hiring.

When contacted by telephone for comments in response to McGill’s remarks, Snyder confirmed that case law was as he had described.

“A teacher’s pay has nothing to do with performance,” she went on to say. Snyder added that teachers were the only profession she knew of in which an employer pays for the cost of continuing education and also changes compensation to reflect additional credentials. Such costs add up, Snyder said, reiterating that the district was struggling with its budget for the coming year.

On the issue of the starting date for classes in 2013-14, McGill said that the bottom line was that the school board and administration had the “final say” in setting the calendar.

In the past, he added, there had been much discussion in the district about how much instructional time teachers can have with students before the administration of the Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment (PSSA) standardized testing in the spring.

McGill said that, this year, the school board faced a “philosophical bear” to wrestle with in terms of making a trade-off between instructional time and saving money on salaries. He added that, with the memorandum of understanding presented to the PVEA, the board attempting to have the union make the “philosophical decision” for them, he added.

“It is not a philosophical discussion,” responded Snyder in her telephone interview. “It is very much a budget discussion.”

She added that the board had attempted to write a memorandum of understanding to remove, as an item to be negotiated, the issue of step movement for the start of classes before the expiration of the current contract. That would have avoided having to deal with the “serious” consequences of the additional cost that would have come with paying for step movement, Snyder said.

In a subsequent e-mail, Snyder forwarded the text of the written statement she had read at the Feb. 4 board meeting, including a passage indicating that step movement for starting classes before the end of the current contract would cost the district $750,000.

When interviewed, Snyder said that “the board’s hands are tied” financially because of Act 1, which is the state law limiting school districts’ ability to increase property tax, as well as the rising cost of the statewide pension system and the current economic climate.

She added that the board was very concerned about instructional time in the classroom. Furthermore, Snyder said, in the past, teachers had been in support of starting the school year after Labor Day. To now raise the issue of the need for additional instructional time was just part of the “negotiations dance,” she added.

In her follow-up e-mail, Snyder wrote that the 2013-14 calendar “will have exactly the same number of student days prior to the first PSSA test date” as in the current year.

When interviewed, McGill took issue with the way the Mercury article reporting on Snyder’s Feb. 4 remarks characterized the compensation terms under the PVEA’s current contract.

Citing a 2011 news story that referred to information from a press release made available by the district, it was reported that the contract provided for a 2.56-percent pay increase during the first year, followed by a 3.2-percent raise in 2011-12, and 3.35 percent in the current year.

According to McGill, however, the union, knowing the district faced difficult financial times, bargained for no pay increase in the first year of the contract, meaning that the salary grid for 2010-11 was the same as for the previous year. With the effect of step movement, he added, an employee would receive 2.56 percent more pay than in 2009-10. McGill also said that, because there is no such movement for individuals at the top step, they were given a one-time pay increase of $750 in the first year of the contract.

McGill said the PVEA was the only employee group in the district to have bargained for a zero percent pay increase. Through their unions, under the Pennsylvania State Education Association, maintenance and support staff received raises, he added. McGill also explained that compensation for principals and supervisors was covered under a separate administrative agreement.

For 2011-12, he added, the PVEA contract provided for a 0.82 percent salary increase, which, combined with the effect of step movement, would result in 3.2 percent more pay for an employee. For the third year of the agreement, there is a 1.2-percent salary increase, with step movement meaning a pay hike of 3.35 percent. McGill pointed out that step movement’s effect on increasing pay has been declining over time.

At the time that the current contract was negotiated, he added, the district had fully-funded health care benefits through Blue Cross/Blue Shield. McGill said the PSEA was getting districts together for self-funded health care plans through the Bucks/Montgomery County School Health Insurance Consortium. He described an alternative, through the Southeastern Pennsylvania Schools Trust, as an organization that was management-driven in decision-making.

McGill said the PVEA had been trying to convince the district administration to join the Bucks/Mont consortium, but the board was resistant, so the union offered to pay the seed money to get into the group. He added that, as of now, the district had been in the consortium for two years.

McGill said he thought that, had it remained with the fully funded Blue Cross plan, the district’s costs would have increased by $1.2 million. He added that he believed that self-funding had cut that figure by $600,000, and, in the coming year, it looked there will be a further reduction of $111,000, for a total savings to the district of more than $700.000.

According to McGill, Perkiomen Valley was “a high-performing school district” in terms of academic achievement and test scores, but was not a highly paid one. In fact, he said, the district was “ranked near the bottom” in terms of compensation. Among the 20-plus districts in Montgomery County, he said, Perkiomen Valley traded last place with the Pottstown and Pottsgrove districts.

When she was interviewed, Snyder disputed McGill’s statement, although she said “there are threads of truth in it.”

In Snyder’s follow-up e-mail, she cited information from the Pennsylvania Department of Education indicating that, for 2011-12, Perkiomen Valley’s average teacher salary ranked 15th out of the 21 districts in Montgomery County. She also cited an analysis from the Pennsylvania School Board Association, based on data from 18 districts, finding that the average starting salary in Montgomery County for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree was $44,097, while, for Perkiomen Valley, it was $42,815. The study also found that the overall average for teachers’ salaries countywide was $66,816, and was $62,763 in Perkiomen Valley, Snyder’s e-mail indicated.

Snyder explained that Perkiomen Valley, which lacks much of the commercial development found elsewhere in the area, has a tax base that is largely dependent on individual homeowners.

“We are very cognizant of what that means,” she said. While the district in fact has raised taxes, Snyder added, the board had worked hard to pare expenses, solicit community input on the budget and maintain programs.

Snyder said it was necessary to strike a balance, as many people, including taxpayers, had not seen pay increases, had seen cuts in health care benefits, or had lost their jobs and taken positions offering less compensation. One way for the board to be responsible was not to commit itself to incur the additional cost that would come with step movement if classes started before the end of the current contract, she added.

Although McGill said that Snyder’s comments at the Feb. 4 meeting did not constitute an unfair labor practice, he did note that there typically is a news blackout period while contract negotiations are pending.

So far, McGill added, there has been one bargaining session, in late January. A second meeting that was supposed to have been held was canceled because of a forecast of inclement weather.

McGill said he had “no idea” how far apart the two sides are at the present time. While the PVEA has presented its package, McGill added that he did not know what the district’s proposal would be.

But, given the nature of the negotiation process, McGill expressed the expectation that the two sides’ initial offers would be “far apart.”

He added, “I wish it didn’t have to be that way.”

Snyder said, when interviewed, that the PVEA had approached the board last fall about the possibility of having an “early bird” contract, in which only wages and benefits would be negotiated. The idea fell through, however, because what the union wanted in terms of raises, on top of step movement, was more than the district could afford, she added.

Snyder said negotiations are difficult and she agreed with the assessment that the original stance that both parties will present will be “far apart.”

Snyder confirmed that there had been only one negotiating session so far, at which the union presented its proposal. She added that the board had been prepared to present its position at the next meeting, which the union canceled.

The next negotiation session is scheduled for April 17, Snyder said.