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Teacher contract talks stall in Tuscarora

February 17, 2005|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Neither side will say the talks have reached an impasse, but no new contract negotiations are scheduled between the Tuscarora School Board and Tuscarora Teachers Association.

The talks are in the hands of a mediator, and the last time the sides sat down was Feb. 7.

Lee Ann Witter-Keefer, association president, made a point during an interview Wednesday at James Buchanan High School, where she teaches family and consumer science, that no school board members showed up for the talks in February.

"We were here for 21/2 hours and never saw a board member. They didn't show up," she said.

Schools Superintendent Thomas Stapleford said Wednesday the board appointed him and attorney Stephen Russell of York County, Pa., its solicitor, to represent it in contract negotiations with the teachers that night. Russell is the board's official negotiator, Stapleford said.

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Stapleford said the board, by law, can appoint its negotiator. Board members legally don't have to serve in that capacity, he said.

The teachers' last four-year contract expired June 30 and they have worked without a contract since then, Witter-Keefer said.

The sides have met eight times since January 2004.

Tuscarora School District serves students in the Borough of Mercersburg and several surrounding townships.

Witter-Keefer said some board members accused the teachers' five-member negotiating team of not representing most teachers in the system.

She and James Frick, a social studies teacher who has served alternately with Witter-Keefer as association president in the last 10 years, said more than 100 teachers attended Monday night's school board meeting in a show of solidarity.

The sides remain apart on issues of salary, health insurance premiums and the number of working days in the school year, Witter-Keefer said.

Teachers and their dependents currently get health-care insurance at no cost. The board wants the teachers to pay part of the premium, Stapleford said.

The teachers argue that they will lose money if they have to pay part of their premiums, even if they get a raise.

Stapleford said health insurance premiums currently cost the district about $2.5 million a year for all of its employees - teachers, administrators and support staff. About 70 percent of the cost stems from paying premiums for teachers.

He said district administrators also will have to pay part of their premiums if the board makes the teachers pay. He said the support staff, because of their low wages, would not be required to pay.

The board has contracted with Blue Cross for employee health insurance, Stapleford said. Premiums are expected to increase by 33 percent in the next three years, he said.

About 60 percent of the teachers in the district have at least 25 years experience.

"We have one of the most experienced faculties in the state," Stapleford said.

Witter-Keefer said teachers in the district are near the bottom of the pay scale for all five Franklin County school districts, ahead only of the small Fannett-Metal School District in northern Franklin County.

Stapleford countered by saying the district's teachers are in the middle range of what teachers earn in York, Adams and Franklin counties.

If mediation fails, a fact-finder would be brought in to review the issues. If that fails, nonbinding arbitration would be next, followed by a possible strike.

"It would either be a strike or start over," Witter-Keefer said. "We're not looking forward to a strike, but we're not saying it wouldn't happen."

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