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Tuscarora teachers plan strike

August 31, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

MERCERSBURG, PA. - The Tuscarora Education Association announced Saturday afternoon that teachers would strike on the first day of the 2008-09 school year, prompting the Tuscarora School District to cancel classes.

The school board and faculty union have been negotiating contracts since November 2007, and the threat of a strike loomed for the past several weeks leading up to Tuesday's start of school.

Both sides are awaiting word from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to determine how many days the teachers will be permitted to strike. State law requires that schools achieve 180 days of instruction by June 15.

"It's going to be 20-plus days unless we reach a resolution," said Marcia Bender, who has been working with the local bargaining unit through the Pennsylvania Education Association.

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Both Bender and Carl Beard, an attorney for the school board, described an increasingly strained relationship between the two parties as they hash out disagreements over salaries and contributions to health insurance premiums.

"I don't think it improves dialogue when you're delivered an ultimatum," Beard said.

Beard shared his frustration about the bargaining unit using FedEx to deliver the written strike notice on Saturday, rather than providing it to the district superintendent during the workweek. He said that parents might be scrambling this busy holiday weekend to make plans for child care.

"Why did you do it now except to inconvenience people?" Beard asked.

Bev Ficks of Mercersburg said her daughter might be among those searching for a baby sitter for her kindergartner and fifth-grader.

"I don't like it," Ficks said. "I think they should pay their own insurance like everyone else. They only work part of the year."

Several people said that morale has been hurt in the community due to the teachers strike and an upcoming referendum vote on whether to spend $35 million to renovate James Buchanan High School.

"I just think the referendum shouldn't be at the same time," Selena Strine said.

Strine, of Greencastle, Pa., said she will be able to care for her third-grade and seventh-grade students during the strike because she happened to already be scheduled off work.

Kelby Roppolo wasn't necessarily excited about going back to school for his junior year, but the teenager did say that he has missed his friends this summer. His father, Shane, said that while he sees both sides of the issue, he feels the teachers should have been more aware of the salary scale when they chose the career field.

The teachers originally went to the bargaining table with a request for 6 percent annual pay increases. A fact-finder proposed increases of 4.25 percent to 4.4 percent each year of the four-year contract.

The Tuscarora Education Association went to the bargaining table on Aug. 4 willing to work with 4.5 percent increases, Bender said. However, the school board instead presented 3.75 percent even though it earlier endorsed the fact-finder's recommendations, she said.

"There's no indication they're willing to make any movement from the Aug. 4 position," Bender said. "You can't maintain quality teachers and attract quality teachers if you don't have an attractive salary and benefits package."

Beard said that the union spokeswoman misrepresented the board's proposal, saying that his side had proposed a range of increases up to 4.3 percent.

Documents provided by the district state that the starting salary for a new teacher with a bachelor's degree was $37,414 for the 2007-08 academic year.

Beard accused the bargaining unit of choosing to "use the kids as basically pawns in this process."

Stay-at-home mother Ronna Seville of Mercersburg said the teachers strike won't disrupt her schedule much, but her third-grader has been thinking about the consequences to some extent.

"I think he does realize if they go on strike, they'll be going longer in the year," Seville said.

On Tuesday, the teachers will be picketing at four buildings rather than working in the classrooms they already had prepared, Bender said.

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