Both sides reject state fact-finder's report on Phoenixville teacher talk impasse

PHOENIXVILLE — Both the Phoenixville Area School District and the union representing district teachers voted against the recommendations of a state fact-finder, prompting further, future negotiations in the process that has taken almost three years.

Several areas of intense focus by both sides included the district’s desire to move to a compacted schedule, salary and health benefit payments.

Diana S. Mulligan was appointed fact finder by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board and heard from both sides Oct. 12 before releasing her formal recommendations Oct. 22.

The Phoenixville Area School Board voted 6-2 against the recommendations on Oct. 26.

The Phoenixville Area Education Association’s general membership voted against the recommendations Nov. 1.

Since both sides rejected the recommendations for the new contract, the recommendations were made public. State law also requires both sides to vote for a second time “between five and ten days after the initial voting deadline,” which was Nov. 1.

Milligan’s eight-page report moves through six issues that the district and the education association have stalled on.

The first issue addressed is the school district’s desire to move to a compacted schedule of a seven and a half hour workday with a 25 minute block of time for “team, developmental and grade level activities.”

If they were to go to such a schedule, the district would reimburse those in the education association $22 per hour of lost preparation time at the secondary school level and 55 cents per minute at the elementary school level.

The education association instead wants $25 per hour for secondary staff and 60 cents per minute for elementary staff for lost preparation time. They also want there to be a 30-minute block of time for “team, developmental and grade level activities.”

The district argues that the new bell schedule and compacted day would allow for greater coordination between the high school and the new middle school opened this year. With that coordination, advanced middle school students would not lose time when moving from class to class between the buildings.

However the education association said the schedule would cut important preparatory time which could be used for meeting with parents, administration and team members.

Mulligan recommended that 30 minutes of preparation time be accepted, as well as 10 minutes of pre or post time in the secondary schools. Additionally, she recommended that the status quo under the old contract be maintained for any missed time due to a compacted schedule.

As expected, issues involving the salary of those in the education association were heard by the fact finder.

The school district proposed a half-step increase in salary in January 2013 for the 2012-13 school year for education association members, with another half-step increase in January of the next year and a 0.6 percent increase in payroll from the base year of the previous contract, 2009-10.

The education association countered with a half step increase retroactive to August 2012, with another half step coming in January 2013 for the 2012-13 school year.

For 2013-14, the education association wants a half step increase in August 2013 and another in January 2014.

Originally, the education association had wanted a full step increase at the beginning of each year, according to Mulligan, but the new way the association proposed the step increase would actually save the district some money.

By making half step increases six months apart, the increase in salary would not actually be a full 1 percent but actually comes out to 0.8 percent for the year.

There was also some disagreement on the pool distribution of money to the association, but Mulligan said there was a disparity in the numbers brought forward by both sides and that it doesn’t look as if both sides were working with the same, exact numbers.

“The parties will have to sort out this discrepancy because I have no way of knowing which scales are correct,” she wrote.

Mulligan recommended that all members of the education association receive an $800 bonus for 2012-13, that the base salaries be increased by 1 percent over the 2009-10 numbers, and she sided with the association on making half step increases for salary, excepting the half step increase for August 2012.

Additionally, she recommended all pool money be divided equally, as opposed to separated by scale, which the school district proposed.

As with many other school districts’ contract negotiations with their teachers unions, health care issues also dominated talks.

Mulligan called the health care issues between the school district and the education association one of the biggest issues they face.

The amount employees would have to pay of the premium share was the chief issue addressed.

“Gone are the days when the employer paid 100 percent of the premium and organized employees (both public and private sector) would go on strike before they would pay even a minimal amount towards the premium,” Mulligan wrote.

As such, the school district proposed that members of the education association pay 7 percent of the total premium with a $1000 deductible for 2012-13, “offset” by a $750 Health Savings Account.

The education association countered instead with a 5 percent premium payment and no deductibles.

Additionally, the health plan for the Phoenixville Area Education Association requires for everyone to pay the same amount.

The education association proposed a three tiered system while the school district proposed a five tier system

According to Mulligan, if the extra tiers proposed by the school district, ones for parent/child and parent/children, would be “subsumed” into the tier for the family plan, the school district “will realize a savings, which, it stated, was its goal.”

As such, Mulligan recommended going to a three tier systems and also proposed the education association’s members pay 5 percent of their medical premium this year with 6 percent in 2013-14.

She also recommended that the education association’s members not have a deductible or a Health Savings Account.

Another health care issue addressed was prescription drug coverage.

The school district wished that generic drugs, instead of those with brand names, be mandated for use for those covered by the education association’s health plan.

Some drugs’ brand names cost the school district twice as much as twice what the generic drugs do, according to the school district’s presentation for the fact-finding.

Mulligan recommended that generic drugs should be used whenever possible but physicians can write “brand necessary” on their scrip “if (s)he feels the patient requires other than the generic drug.”

“What drugs a patient needs is between the physician and the patient,” Mulligan wrote.

The school district also requested that the spouses of education association employees be mandated to leave the school district plan if they can be covered by another one.

Mulligan’s recommendation was to not force a spouse to withdraw, but to try to make the employee a secondary beneficiary “where coordination of benefits applies.”

According to a spokesman, in some parts of the recommendations, the school board wished to get further clarification and interpretation.

“There were several points within the Report and Recommendations which were unclear,” Keith Black, representing the school district, said. “While the Board is hoping to receive clarification on these issues prior to its next vote, the Fact Finder is not obligated to provide such clarification.”

Although both sides will have to vote again on whether to accept the recommendations or not, the education association iterated its desire to resume negotiations.

“The (Phoenixville Area Education Association) wishes to continue to negotiate in good faith, using the fact-finding report to renew productive dialogue with the Board,” the association said in a statement Saturday.

The full report from the fact finder can be found here.

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.

This story was originally published on www.pottsmerc.com.