Teachers strike pushes Neshaminy aide 'over the edge'

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Members and supporters of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers shout "Negotiate" at the start of Tuesday's school board meeting at Maple Point Middle School. The board has suspended contract talks until the teachers return to work. (Bill Reed/Staff)

Margie McCurdy has worked for the Neshaminy School District for 13 years, the last 10 of them as an aide supervising disciplinary students at Poquessing Middle School.

As a member of the 463-member Neshaminy Educational Support Professional Association, she gets paid by the hour — only when students are in school.

So when the 654 members of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers went on strike Monday, “it pushed me over the edge,” McCurdy, of Trevose, said Tuesday night at a boisterous school board meeting packed by 775 residents, teachers and students of the Lower Bucks County district.

“To go out on strike, to do this to the kids and to the support staff, it isn’t right,” she said the next day, as teacher picketing continued at the 12 schools. “I can file for unemployment, but I won’t get the money for weeks."

The teachers union went on strike after working for 3½ years under an expired contract that the school board says it can no longer afford. In addition to wages and health-care contributions, the two sides are far apart on retirement packages and issues of equal say for teachers on curriculum and class sizes in the 7,000-student district.

As the strike stretched into its third day, NFT members were starting to see some effects. The district terminated their medical, dental, vision and prescription coverage as of Monday. To replace it would cost them about $500,000 for two weeks.

That is approximately how long the NFT can strike before being ordered back to work under Pennsylvania’s Act 88. Classes must resume by Jan. 20, the state Department of Education told both sides Wednesday.

Act 88 guarantees that students get 180 days of classes, and that teachers satisfy all or most of their 188 1/2-day contract.

“I suspect they [teachers] would lose nothing,” Board President Richie Webb said. “The most that’s at risk is eight days, unlike those who go on strike and don’t get paid.”

Teachers will receive regular paychecks until the district determines they cannot fulfill their contract, Personnel Director Theresa Hinterberger said. Then their pay would be recalculated on a per diem basis.

As for the termination of the teachers’ insurance coverage, “the district is under no obligation to pay for health benefits during a strike,” Webb said.

Anticipating the move, the NFT briefed members on their options, union spokesman Bob Schiers said. Those choices include paying for coverage, switching to a spouse’s insurance, filing for COBRA — a temporary continuation of a health plan from a lost job — or going without.

“It will vary from person to person,” Schiers said. “Ultimately, it will cost some teachers money.”

The existing coverage for two weeks would range from about $450 for a single subscriber to about $1,100 for a family, said Bill Gulla, the district’s agent. He added that “retirees' coverage or those on maternity leave or sabbatical” cannot be terminated.

The strike also will affect teachers who routinely opt out of the health-care plan. They normally receive 37 percent of the premiums, costing the district about $55,000 for two weeks, Gulla said. That breaks down to $169 for a single teacher to about $400 for one with a family.

Support workers’ insurance was not terminated. However, only full-time secretaries, custodians, bus drivers and aides, representing about half of the union’s membership, get coverage. McCurdy, the Poquessing aide, is in the other half, paying $1,618 a month for her and her disabled husband.

“Without a paycheck, I won’t have the money on Jan. 23, when the payment is due,” McCurdy said. “I’ll have to take it out of my savings. That’s not fair.”

Many support employees, who earn $13.18 to $26 an hour under a new three-year contract, are still working, Hinterberger said. Some aides are staffing the day-care program the district is providing during the strike.

McCurdy, who makes about $600 for a 40-hour week, is sitting home, earning nothing. Like the teachers, she can make up the work and the pay when classes resume.

But that's no help now.

“When [NFT President] Louise Boyd said the district can raise taxes” to help pay for the teachers’ contract, “it ticked me off as an employee and a taxpayer,” McCurdy said. “I’m out of work — I can't afford it.”

Like NFT members, McCurdy and members of her union worked without getting a raise for three years. “And when I do — 1 percent — it’s not a lot, but it’s something to be grateful for,” she said. “Many people are not getting any raises.”

McCurdy said both sides need to end the state’s longest current contract impasse.

“The teachers need to get back in the classrooms, the leadership needs to put reasonable offers on the table, and the board needs to listen,” she said. “We should lock them all in a room until they come out with something.”