Mayor will seek fourth term

Staff photo by Nick Danna/editor@PhoenixvilleNews.com Phoenixville Mayor Leo J. Scoda speaks with The Phoenix about his plans to run for a fourth term Tuesday.

DOWNINGTOWN -- After 12 hours of negotiating, the Downingtown Area School Board and the teachers union could not reach a tentative contract agreement.So the strike begins today. "While good progress was made in fashioning a health insurance package, the parties are some four-tenths of a percent apart on pay in certain years," said Paul Gottlieb, a UniServ representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association and chief spokesman for the union. Alice Johnson, chairwoman of the school board's negotiating team, said the salary difference between the board and union's proposal currently equates to $1,888,272. While representatives from both sides said progress has been made with the health care benefits talks, salaries continue to remain a point of conflict. Gottlieb said the union offered to withdraw its strike notice if the district would agree to engage in binding arbitration to settle all issues. But he said the district refused, so the union reaffirmed its right to strike. "The board feels that it has consistently bargained in good faith," said Johnson at a news conference Monday. "Given the financial challenges that will affect the district in the years to come, the board believes that it has offered a balanced contract that compensates teachers without placing additional heavy burdens on the district's taxpayers." The board's final salary proposal includes a four-year pact with increases of 4.4 percent, 4.5 percent, 4.5 percent and 4.6 percent. "This fair and responsible offer has been rejected by the union leaders," Johnson said. "When it was apparent that the union rejected our offer, we asked our teachers to remain in school while a mandatory non-binding arbitration was conducted." The union's most recent salary proposal includes a five-year pact with increases of 4.85 percent for the first three years of the contract and 4.6 percent increases for the final two years.The union has criticized the school district for having a $25 million surplus in its capital reserve fund at the end of last school year. "We've heard about this for the length of negotiations," said Johnson. "We intend to use this money for our third middle school," she said. "This shows that the school district is more interested in bricks and mortar rather than spending more money for instruction," Gottlieb said. Gottlieb said the binding arbitration would bring in a third party to decide the outcome of the negotiations. "We were willing to give up our right to strike," he said. Johnson said the board does not want to enter binding arbitration because the board believes decisions about salary, benefits, length of contract and language proposals should ultimately be made by the board. She said the board would be "perfectly willing" to go into non-binding arbitration and listen to the advice of a third party. But Gottlieb said that instead of the agreeing to a binding arbitration, the board has decided it would rather have all the children on the streets. Johnson said the strike is unfortunate for everyone in the school district -- particularly the children. "It is the board's hope that our teachers' union will continue to work with us so we can all get back to the business of what we are here for -- the education of our students." The current enrollment of school district is the largest in Chester County, Johnson said, adding there are nearly 12,000 students. After the school board's news conference, Gottlieb spoke on behalf of the union, which represents 850 teachers, guidance counselors and librarians. The current starting salary for teachers in the school district is $43,330; the average salary is $58,915. The current top salary for teachers with the most years of service and highest education level is $81,815. Gottlieb said the board's call for non-binding arbitration is an attempt to postpone a strike without making any decisions. The "critical date" for the end of the strike has not been set yet. This date will be determined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Christopher S. Manlove, a spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industry, explained the critical date is the date the strike must end in order for students to be in school for the legally required 180 days without going beyond June 15, or the date regularly scheduled for the academic year's end.Once the critical date is reached, the teachers must return to work and enter into mandatory, non-binding arbitration. If either the school board or the union rejects the non-arbitration panel's determination, a second strike may be authorized. In the event of a second strike, the union must again provide a 48-hour notification. Another critical date would be set once the second strike begins and this is the date the strike must end in order for students to be in school for the legally required 180 days without going beyond June 30, Manlove said.Gottlieb said teachers could go out from 12 to 23 days to meet the required 180 days for the school year. According to Gottlieb, the board's final salary offer is not enough because the school district has the fifth highest tax rate and the third highest property value. He also said the school district is 10th out of 12 school districts for overall career earnings, according to information from the PSEA's records. Gottlieb said the union is "trying to get up to par" with neighboring school districts. Classes have been cancelled for today. The district will release updates daily on its Web site and through the negotiation hotline. The decision to cancel classes will be made by 10 p.m. each day of the strike. The Holiday Inn Express in Exton will be the teachers' strike headquarters, Gottlieb said. Picketing is to begin at 10:30 a.m. today at six locations in the school district. The school district's last strike occurred in September 1980.
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