PGEA Union Issues Rebuke to Superintendent’s Letter

LOWER POTTSGROVE PA – Leaders in the teachers’ union that represents a majority of Pottsgrove School District employees, in a Monday (Dec. 7, 2020) letter e-mailed to The Post, charged that Superintendent Dr. William Shirk “fueled emotional and unsubstantiated responses on multiple social media platforms” with a statement he issued about postponing plans to launch hybrid education.

The union claimed Shirk’s contention that hybrid classes were temporarily canceled due to “an increase in professional and support staff call-outs,” as he wrote Sunday (Dec. 6), only “enflamed the passions of the community” in a manner that he “did nothing to refute or dispel.”

It also suggested Shirk’s message was intended to deflect “backlash” against the district regarding the hybrid postponement, and prompted “unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims” within the district community “of an organized effort among PGEA members.”

The leadership of the Pottsgrove Education Association said it hoped to emphasize “in the clearest and strongest terms” that it would “never prompt its membership, explicitly or implicitly, to engage in legally prohibited actions that would violate an existing contract or state labor law.” The reply was signed by union President John Shantz, Vice President Andrew Clarke, Treasurer Lambert Liebel, and Secretary Stephen Mellor.

The union letter claimed Shirk could have offered another, more “reasonable justification” to explain the postponement: the rapid spread of coronavirus, as evidenced in statistics released by the Montgomery County Office of Public Health. It would have been accurate, the union observed, and had it been issued well enough in advance it “would have given the community more time to adjust their expectations.”

“The PGEA membership is failing to understand why you did not emphasize this perfectly reasonable rationale for your decision,” its letter stated. “Our membership was prepared to fulfill our teaching obligations, as we always are,” it added. In its conclusion, the union asked Shirk to “send a follow-up communication to the public” to affirm the decision to postpone the hybrid launch “was yours alone.”

Social media chatter regarding the district’s and union’s roles in the postponement surprisingly spilled over Monday night into pre-meeting discussions at the Lower Pottsgrove Board of Commissioners. Some at the commissioners’ event said they’d heard several Pottsgrove teachers acknowledge their inability to work Monday because schools attended by their own children, primarily those in the Spring-Ford and Perkiomen Valley districts, also would temporarily close, albeit for different reasons.

Read the union letter in its entirety, below

Date: 12/7/2020
To: Dr. William Shirk, Superintendent, Pottsgrove School District
From: Pottsgrove Education Association (PGEA)
Re: Response to District Communication, dated 12/6/2020

Dear Dr. Shirk,

The Pottsgrove Education Association (PGEA), in representing our membership, believes it necessary to respond to the information you communicated to the Pottsgrove School District community on December 6th, 2020, at 8:30 pm.

In your communication, you stated, “…there has been an increase in professional and support staff call outs for Monday, December 7th which prevents us from effectively covering our hybrid classes. Therefore, beginning tomorrow, Monday, December 7th, through Friday, December 11th, all Pottsgrove schools will remain in the ‘all virtual’ mode for grades K through 12.” When Dr. Harney in the District Human Resources Department was queried about the actual number of “call outs”, he indicated that there were 46 confirmed absences throughout the district (out of 458 teachers and staff). However, we still do not know what proportion of these 46 were teachers, and which were support staff. Also unknown is the proportion that would not be working, vs. working virtually. Lastly, we also do not know when the District learned of this number, and why a last-minute suspension of the in-person hybrid model was necessary.

By emphasizing a “functional closure” as the basis for your communication, you have fueled emotional and unsubstantiated responses, on multiple social media platforms. Allegations that the District was “forced” by a presumed “organized effort” by the teachers to coordinate a “sick out” were insinuated. Such allegations are unequivocally and patently FALSE – as you likely know – but the premise of your letter enflamed the passions of the community, in a manner that you did nothing to refute or dispel.

In the context of this information, you had two primary options for suspending the hybrid model: a substantial number of positivity cases, or a “functional closure” based on an inability to have adequate staffing.

As you know, data on positivity cases is provided by the Montgomery County Office of Public Health, and shared on the District COVID-19 Dashboard with the public. This data should have been used as the rationale for your decision, and would have been entirely consistent with your statement, “I am following the recommendations from the Montgomery County Office of Public Health and the CHOP Policy Lab and erring on the side of caution and safety for all.” Given that the Dashboard data was published most recently on December 4th, you could have used this as a reasonable justification for your decision, and at an earlier time, that would have given the community more time to adjust their expectations. The PGEA membership is failing to understand why you did not emphasize this perfectly reasonable rationale for your decision.

Data on staff “call-outs” was not publicized in the letter, but was known in advance by you. Yet, you chose to communicate at the last possible moment to the community that the basis for the suspension of hybrid & in-person teaching was “functional closure”. The backlash from the community in response to your decision was subsequently deflected, and targeted at the teachers, with unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims of an organized effort among PGEA members. We wish to emphasize in the clearest and strongest terms that the PGEA leadership would never prompt its membership – explicitly or implicitly – to engage in legally prohibited actions that would violate an existing contract or state labor law.

Our membership was prepared to fulfill our teaching obligations, as we always are. The number of confirmed staff absences for Monday was no greater than the District has experienced in past occasions in the regular course of delivering instruction. In the case of the high school, we even quickly accepted an MOU to modify contracted hours to accommodate a smoother transition to the in-person hybrid model.

The decision to suspend in-person hybrid instruction – and the justification for it – was yours alone. We would appreciate it if you would send a follow-up communication to the public affirming this.

Sincerely,

John Shantz, PGEA President
Andrew Clarke, PGEA Vice President
Lambert Liebel, PGEA Treasurer
Stephen Mellor, PGEA Secretary

Photo by The Post