EAST WHITELAND - The Great Valley School Board reported "little progress" in contract negotiations with its teachers union when it disclosed details about both sides' contract proposals, then saw a unanimous vote Tuesday by its teachers union to authorize a strike if its leadership deems it necessary this fall.
Jay Levin, the school board's spokesman for contract negotiations, said at the board's meeting Monday that he was "disappointed to report that little progress has been made on the remaining outstanding issues of salaries, benefits and teacher preparation time."
The Great Valley Education Association and district have been negotiating a new contract since January. The current pact expires June 30.
Though Levin has been mentioned at previous meetings that the two sides were meeting and negotiations ongoing, Monday marked the first that he got specific about the district's and union's proposals.
According to a district summary of the proposals, the union asks for salary increases that are as much as double the district's offer.
The district is offering a 2 percent to 3. 5 percent salary increase based on the consumer price index. Over four years, that would amount to a 8.2 to 14.8 percent increase overall.
By comparison, the union is asking for a 6.5 percent annual increase for a total 28.6 percent increase over the life of the contract. Individual teachers' increases would vary. The starting salary would be more than $52,000 with the maximum salary over $100,000, according to the district.
"This is inconsistent with our aim to keep salaries competitive but also comparable to other districts," Levin read from a prepared statement. "Nearby West Chester Area School District, for example, settled last fall on salary increase of less than 4 percent."
In terms of health insurance, Levin said the union proposed "a costly plan which is even superior to the plan accepted by the teacher's union at (the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District)," and said that the union has remained unwilling to contribute to the premium cost of health care. The district said in January when it announced its goals for the new contract, that it wants teachers to contribute towards the health care premium.
Bill Beyers, the spokesman for the Great Valley Education Association, said the strike authorization vote taken by the 300-member union was a usual step when negotiations continue "at this time of year," a union spokesman said.
He defended the union's proposal saying that it is fair and responds to the district's concern about the rising cost of health benefits.
Beyers said that the health care plan the union proposed would not increase the district's costs in the first year of the contract, significant given the recent high-percentage annual increases in the cost of health care, he said. It proposed a change in the plan which would increase co-pays for visits to physician specialists.
To encourage more savings, the union proposed a prescription drug plan that allows teachers to purchase generic drugs at a reduced cost and requires higher co-pays for higher-end brands. The district proposed higher co-pays than the union did.
Beyers said that the union's proposed salary increases respond to board concerns with disparities in pay increases between the newest and longest-serving teachers and to the educators' increasing work-load.
"The test results, the performance of the students, the graduation rates, the places kids go to college ... it's unequaled in the state," Beyers said. "We don't feel our demands are over the top or unreasonable."
The district's attempts to fulfill its own strategic plan and the mandates coming from the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind have increased teachers' work load and responsibilities, he said.
Both parties also remain divided over the length of the work day and planning time for elementary school teachers, retirement incentives, personal days, tuition reimbursement and union activity-related leave.
The district wants to increase the day by 30 minutes to eight hours to increase instruction time. The union wants to maintain the day and to double their hour-hour preparation period from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.
Union members met with leadership Tuesday and were apprised of the progress of talks. They also voted to give its negotiators permission to call a strike if necessary.
"We have always taken a vote at this time of year when the negotiations have not been complete and (we're) heading into the summer recess," Beyer said.
This marks the first time in six years the parties have met to write a new contract, extending a four year contract two years ago. That contract included a 3.9 percent annual salary increase.
The board has posted the parties' proposals on its Web site, its public disclosures being directed by the Communications Solutions Group of Jenkintown, the firm the West Chester Area School District contracted last year to help it during its negotiations with teachers.
In August of last year, before a 13-day teachers' strike began, the district mailed newsletters to residents comparing the parties' proposals.
"They just had success and we always wanted to keep this an open line of communication with the public," Levin said in an interview Tuesday.
Great Valley officials heard from a few residents at its Monday meeting including at least two concerned about the rising costs in the district.
Resident Kathy Bond of Willistown said "it's a real struggle" for seniors to pay the increasing tax rate and said that some seniors have taken part-time jobs to manage their expenses. "I hope the union will take that into consideration," she said.
Tracy Hanse, a parent in the district, spoke on behalf of teachers.
"I think that our teachers work extremely hard and they deserve a raise," she said. "Things are expensive right now and costs are high," she said, but that "we still have ... one of the lowest taxes in the area."
Levin said that the union and district are schedule to meet on June 29.
He said that the district would "not lose sight" of its goals.