Safe haven in midst of Neshaminy labor turmoil

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Tracey Dornisch-Cramer, co-owner of the Langhorne Coffee House, who says she is neutral in this week's strike by Neshaminy teachers. (Bill Reed/Staff)

From behind the counter at the Langhorne Coffee House, co-owner Tracey Dornisch-Cramer can see all sides of the Neshaminy teachers’ strike that stretched into its second day on Tuesday.

“Everyone who walks through that door is affected by the strike,” the 37-year-old Neshaminy graduate said.

“I have students who work part-time, who want to be in school. Parents who normally come in don’t have money because they have to pay for day care,” Dornisch-Cramer said. “There are teachers who are customers, and police officers who come in from watching the pickets” at nearby Oliver Heckman Elementary School. “The police were distraught [Monday] that kids were left home alone.”

“This is putting a lot of stress on the community – it’s really tough on everybody,” Dornisch-Cramer said. 

To make all customers feel comfortable, Dornisch-Cramer posted a sign encouraging respectful conversation and noting that the staff “remains neutral.”

“I want to be Switzerland,” she said, laughing. “I’m just so glad I decided to make coffee and eggs instead of becoming a teacher.”

There was no neutrality at Tuesday night's regularly scheduled school board meeting, where teachers chanted "Negotiate" and board supporters shouted "Teach our kids." The 775-seat Maple Point Middle School auditorium was filled to capacity, with about 30 attendees locked out to comply with safety regulatioins.

Much of the talk at the coffee shop on Monday was critical of teachers for picketing outside the district’s 12 schools after working without a contract for 3 ½ years, Dornisch-Cramer said.

On Tuesday, the tone was much mellower, like the snickerdoodle, donut blend and crème brulee coffees.

“It’s about time they went on strike,” said Stephen Perloff, 63, of Langhorne. “The school board refused to negotiate. They turned down a mediator’s recommendations and refused to return to mediation.”

About three years ago, a factfinder recommended that more negotiations were needed, board President Richie Webb said Tuesday. Other recommendations, including the extension of free health care, were too expensive for the board to accept, Webb said.

For the past two years, a state mediator has been involved in the talks, which the board suspended once the union called the strike.   

The community has a responsibility to pay teachers to provide quality education, said Perloff, whose two daughters graduated Neshaminy elementary and middle schools.

“Who’s going to be the doctors and nurses 10 years from now?” Perloff asked.

“Who is going to be the intelligent electorate?” his wife, Naomi Mindlin, added.

John Krimmel of Langhorne, who has five grandchildren in Neshaminy schools, called the strike a “catastrophic event.”

“I don’t think teachers had any choice,” Kimmel said. “The union went face-to-face with the board, and the board refused to negotiate with them.”

The two sides have had 38 negotiating sessions since the contract expired in mid-2008, with the board making three offers and the union making six counterproposals. The board has maintained that it cannot afford retroactive raises for the past three years, while the union has lowered its demands to a 1 percent raise in base salaries for last year, plus full restoration of credits for years worked.

“Teachers who started four years ago are still getting a first-year salary, and it’s really hurting them,” said  Lynn Wallace, who retired after 35 years as a social studies teacher at Neshaminy Middle School. “Teachers who earned their masters degrees four years ago are still being paid on the bachelor’s degree level.

“I get upset when I hear talk about greedy teachers,” Wallace said at the Langhorne United Methodist Church, across the street from Oliver Heckman. “I don’t think it’s true. They have the same responsibilities, the same bills that everyone else has.”  

Wallace was a teacher in 1981 when the union went on strike for 13 weeks. That was before state Act 88, which limits teacher strikes to guarantee a 180-day school year ending by June 14.

Based on Act 88, the teachers would have to return to work by Jan. 20, district Superintendent Louis Muenker said. The state Department of Education would then appoint an arbitrator to gather facts from both sides and make non-binding recommendations. The union could then call a second strike, which would have to end in time to complete the school year by June 30.

Many students fear that the strike will push back graduation and delay summer vacation. But high school senior Tom Brown of Langhorne said “it’s not that big of an impact. We still have to go to school the same amount of time.”

Brown and his older sister, Brittany, were handing out soft pretzels and homemade brownies to pickets outside Oliver Heckman, their fifth stop around the district.

“We support our teachers and want them to have a fair contract,” said Brittany Brown, a sophomore at Shippensburg University.

“Teachers mean a lot to us,” Tom Brown added. “They’ve been our guides through life.”

Back at the coffeehouse, high school juniors Dani McGinty and Kristine Logan were enjoying breakfast but worrying that spring break might get cut short.

“People think we’re excited to get the time off, but not really,” McGinty said. “We have to make it up.” 

Logan, who plays on the girls’ varsity basketball team, said the strike had not affected Monday’s practice or Tuesday’s scheduled game at the high school, because the coaches are not Neshaminy teachers. The boys’ varsity team is being coached by the assistants, because the head coach is a union member, Logan said.

The union also had its critics in the coffeehouse and around the district.

“They say, ‘It’s all for the students,’ and now they’re out walking,” said Joe Taylor, deputy chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Co.

“You can’ keep putting it on taxpayers when you’re driving them out of their homes because they can’t pay their taxes,” Taylor said.

The union has said that a 2.1-mill tax increase could help pay for salary increases of 2.75 percent this school year, 3 percent next year and 3.5 percent the following year. The district’s offer is a 1 percent raise to the base salaries of $42,552 to $95,923 this year and each of the next two years, with a tax increase a “last resort,” Webb has said.

The district also wants the teachers to pay a share of their health-care benefits for the first time, demanding a 15 percent contribution. The union has offered to pay a flat 8 percent a year based on this year’s premiums, which would amount to a smaller percentage with higher premiums.

“In these tough economic times, everyone has to give some,” Taylor said. “The support staff -- bus drivers, custodians, groundskeepers, aides – are paying 15 to 17 percent.”

Across town at Herbert Hoover Elementary, a mother dropped off her third-grade son for the day-care program the district is providing during the strike.

“This means more money,” said Kelly, who withheld her last name, referring to the $20 to $25 a day charge.

“I think they’re being a little selfish,” she said about the teachers. “If I were a member of a union  and could get something for free, I would. They have to understand that now you have to pay for benefits. This is a working-class neighborhood.”

Down Trenton Road at the Wawa, Jacqueline Sweet of Langhorne called the strike “ridiculous.”

“There are too many people without jobs and health insurance for the teachers to not pay 15 percent – to be worried about a company that wants to pay 85 percent” of the premiums, said Sweet, who has a first-grader in Samuel Everitt Elementary School.

“Maybe they should give these jobs to the Catholic school teachers who are losing their jobs,” she added.

Steve Roberts of Langhorne, whose daughter is a district graduate, called the situation “appalling.”

“Most of society is taking cuts in pay, when they [Neshaminy teachers] are overpaid,” Rogers said. “If anyone forms a picket line for the public, I’ll gladly join.”