An audible sigh of relief was released last month throughout the West Chester Area School District as it appeared that the school board and the teachers union had come to a tentative contract agreement after nearly three years of negotiations.
All that seemed left to do was for the union to hold a vote, and the contract would be approved.
The union voted it down, and not by a small margin, over 90 percent of the education association showed up for the vote, and they voted down the contract proposal by a resounding 86 percent.
So, if a tentative agreement was made, what happened?
“It’s really a matter of semantics,” said West Chester Education Association President Debbie Fell. “There was a contract proposed by the fact-finder, and anytime I take a proposal to the membership for a vote it can technically be called ‘tentative.’”
Fact-finding is the process where a state appointed mediator steps in and tries to come up with a proposal that fits both side’s demands.
“This is the first time the district has ever gone to a fact finder,” Fell said. “We still haven’t had a face to face negotiation with the school board.”
The school board has hired a professional negotiator to handle the contract negotiations.
The union claims that they have only met with the negotiator Jeff Sultanik, and not with a single member of the school board.
Sultanik was also involved in the 2003 contract negotiations for the West Chester School District. Those negotiations resulted in the district’s first ever strike.
The union claims that Sultanik has charged the district over $100,000 so far for his negotiation services.
“We have nine school board members that have yet to show up for a negotiation session,” said West Chester teacher and member of the negotiation team Chris Bruno. “We have people who are running for office on their negotiation abilities who haven’t done any negotiating. They’ve just wasted taxpayer dollars.”
Fell also said that last month’s no vote wasn’t about salary, but about the way the proposed contract treated teachers.
“Instead of giving as raises they wanted to give us bonuses. Fine,” Fell said. “But the increase in benefit costs to the teacher was $1600. That means even with the bonus teachers would still have to pay an extra $1100.”
Fell added, “You’re paying money to keep your job.”
Fell also said that the union was not happy with the district’s proposal for continuing education.
“They keep saying that they’re funding 90 percent of teacher’s continuing education,” Fell said. “But what they’re offering is a $2,500 cap, which really only pays for six credits.”
Fell argues that the six credits does not match the state required mandate for continuing education.
“What we have is a district that doesn’t want to educate its teachers,” Fell said.
“We take pride in what we do,” Bruno said. “We go to school like it’s another room of our house. We just want it to stay that way.”