POTTSTOWN PA – Students and parents in the Pottsgrove School District may see “a departure from (its) normal operations” during coming weeks, as its teachers – working under a now expired employment contract – implement what Superintendent Shellie Feola claimed in a Friday (Oct. 2, 2015) letter was a “work-to-rule” labor action.
Feola charged the teachers’ union, the Pottsgrove Education Association, directed members “to complete only contractually required duties” as a strategy intended to pressure the district during on-going employment negotiations. If teachers decline duties for which they usually volunteer, “certain activities may be put on hold or may operate in a limited fashion,” Feola stated.
She alleged teachers might decline to supervise bus dismissal, avoid participation in evening meetings, special events or attendance as dance chaperons and at family nights, or decorating hallway bulletin boards or answering e-mail once the workday ends. She did not say they had already done so, or threatened to take any specific action.
The association “strongly disagrees” with Feola’s publicized interpretation of events, union President Megan DeLena wrote later Friday night in a response to the letter posted on its Facebook page. DeLena’s statement neither confirmed or denied the report of the work-to-rule action. She noted, however, that so far teachers’ “attendance at voluntary school activities after the school day have continued.”
On the teachers’ behalf, DeLena also pledged “the issues between the district and the association have not changed how we care about your children.” She parried Feola, too, on what she hinted was the district’s own strategic tactic: “It is unfortunate,” DeLena wrote, “that the district chose to send this letter, making parents worry over issues that don’t affect their children.”
Feola claimed the union changed chief negotiators at the bargaining table four times since talks began in early January. She alleged DeLena admitted such “unprecedented changes” resulted in similar changes in union strategy and inconsistencies. DeLena, on the other hand, charged the district had met with the union only eight times within nine months, offered only one official proposal, and “steadfastly refused to move on significant issues.”
Both indicated their side, and not the other, acted in “good faith.”
The public war of words is the latest indication negotiations between the two sides have become increasingly tense. There also were peeks into what seem to be two tough issues between the parties: payment for health care costs, and bus dismissal.
DeLena reported “the district is asking for a significant increase in health care contributions from employees despite a reduction in district costs to health care.” Business Administrator David Nester in May acknowledged Pottsgrove had saved substantially on health care claims in recent years, and would be in a position to reduce savings it held earlier for unanticipated health-related expenses.
Feola said the union had already filed a contract grievance against the district disputing the practice of bus supervision, which she claimed was a “clearly written contractual requirement.” It was requesting teachers receive “extra pay for ensuring the safety and welfare of district students,” she added. “Regardless of our issues, there has never been a day when your children’s safe departure was not supervised,” DeLena countered on Facebook.
Money – how much teachers want in wages and benefits, and how much the district believes it can afford – is at the heart of the public wrangling.
Feola’s letter acknowledged teachers have an “important, challenging and demanding job,” and said the district “is grateful to our teachers for all they do.” At the same time, she added, the district must “balance the needs of our taxpayers who fund our public school system.”
While that may be, several teachers have publicly and privately said they lost money, and feel the union bailed the district out of an economic jam during the last round of negotiations three years ago, by agreeing to a lower-cost proposal in the hope they would be better compensated in this round. Former President Michael Neiffer at the time characterized the agreement as one that offered Pottsgrove a “stable budget environment.”
The situation in Pottsgrove appears to be in stark contrast to that in the neighboring Pottstown School District. Earlier this week Pottstown announced the school board and teachers agreed to sign a one-year pact that essentially leaves current contract terms in place.