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Teachers strike pushes back start of Tuscarora school year indefinitely

September 03, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

MERCERSBURG, Pa. -- "You all should be fired," one man shouted from the back of a motorcycle.

Moments later, though, an arm stuck out of the passenger side of a smoky blue pickup truck, giving striking teachers a thumbs-up.

Tuscarora Education Association teachers picketed with signs Tuesday outside James Buchanan middle and high schools as well as St. Thomas and Montgomery elementary schools. All buildings in the Tuscarora School District were shuttered to everyone other than custodial staff on what was supposed to be the first day of the 2008-09 academic year.

No resolution has been reached in faculty contract negotiations that started in November 2007, with unionized teachers saying their biggest concerns are salaries and contributions to health insurance premiums. No new bargaining sessions are scheduled.

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"We notified (the school board) in April that we would not be coming back without a contract," said Sheryl Allison, chairwoman of the teachers' seven-person negotiating team.

District parent F. Phillips said by e-mail that her middle school student cried when he found out that the start of the school year would be pushed back indefinitely.

"He is bored and ready to get back to school and start learning again," she wrote.

The district's students enrolled at the Franklin County (Pa.) Career and Technology Center arrived there smoothly Tuesday morning, according to Superintendent Rebecca E. Erb, who announced this weekend that academic classes would be canceled.

She said parents seemed to be aware of the strike and schools closure.

Both sides continued to await word from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which will inform them how long the strike can legally continue. All Pennsylvania schools are required to provide 180 days of instruction before June 15.

Marcia Bender, spokeswoman for the union, said that many days scheduled off for students can be converted into regular instructional days, although classes cannot be held on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Memorial Day.

Erb last week was unsure whether athletics would continue during the strike, but said Tuesday that all sports except tennis would be unaffected.

"The biggest thing is we do care about (the) kids. We're not doing this because we don't care about kids," said Michelle Baker, who teaches eighth-grade math.

However, she said, the teachers need salary increases of at least 4.5 percent to stay in line with other county school districts' benefits packages.

"It isn't about the here and now. It's about the years to come," said Sheila Snider, a fifth-grade teacher in her 31st year with the district.

Snider said she thinks about the district needing to attract skilled teachers from college, and she also thinks about the 60 Tuscarora teachers who do not yet have tenure. This will be their first contract.

"A lot of people pay their own health care, and we know that happens, but I think (not doing so) is one of the perks of being a teacher," Snider said. "Most of our teachers have master's degrees. We're very well-qualified to do our job."

A fact-finder proposed salary increases of 4.25 percent to 4.4 percent each year of the four-year contract. While the school board supported those recommendations, the Tuscarora Education Association bargaining unit rejected them.

The two sides went to the bargaining table Aug. 4 with the teachers proposing increases of 4.5 percent. The school board presented a range of increases starting at 3.75 percent.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a nationwide study found that base pay will rise an average of 3.8 percent in 2009.

The Tuscarora district covers the borough of Mercersburg and the surrounding townships. The education association represents about 180 teachers.

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