Neshaminy teachers' strike closes schools

Updated at 11:37 a.m.

Teachers in the Neshaminy School District went on strike this morning for the second time this year, closing classes for 7,000 students.

Members of the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers started picketing outside the Lower Bucks County district’s 13 schools starting at 7 a.m., on the day high school seniors were scheduled to start final exams. The strike will extend the school year to as late as June 29, though the district plans to stick to its June 13 graduation.

The teachers are completing their fourth year without a raise, working under the terms of the contract that expired in July 2008. After 39 negotiating sessions and a recent non-binding arbitration. both sides are still far apart on back pay, raises, health care contributions and retirement incentives.

”We’re not here by choice, but because the school board has left us no choice,” union vice president Jeff Dunkley said outside Neshaminy High School.   “They have presented nothing but exceedingly more punitive proposals, while we’ve offered six proposals that have been exceedingly more modest.”

The strike comes one month after the school board unanimously rejected an independent arbitrator’s recommendations that President Ritchie Webb said would cost the district $20 million.

The non-binding arbitration was required by state law because of the union’s eight-day strike in January.

“Without the January strike, we wouldn’t have reached non-binding arbitration,” Dunkley said, “and without non-binding arbitration, we wouldn’t have reached the right to a second strike.” 

The district is waiting for the state Board of Education to set a deadline for the teachers to return to work to complete the required 180-day school year, school board member Mike Morris said. Classes must be completed by June 30, without extending school days or scheduling weekend sessions.

NFT President Louise Boyd said the union would welcome an order from Bucks County Court for daily negotiations to resolve the impasse, but “there’s no guarantee a judge would become involved.”

Morris said the union “is trying to steer this to binding arbitration, just like it did for the non-binding arbitration, superseding the public’s rights.”

Both sides described last week's negotiating session as unproductive, and the next session, scheduled for June 12, will be canceled if the union is on strike, board President Ritchie Webb has said.        

Union leaders have said the board refuses to meet the teachers half way in the bitter impasse, while the district has said it cannot afford the midpoint or many terms of the expired contract. The district is facing a $5.5 million shortfall for next year and is planning to cut programs and union positions to help balance the budget.

The union is seeking 80 percent of back pay, including education and service credits, and annual wage increases of 1 percent to 3.25 percent from last year through the 2013-14 school year. The school board maintains it cannot afford any back pay, except for education credits, and has offered 1 percent raises for this year and each of the next two years.

Under the district’s proposal, base salaries would range from $42,552 to $96,883 this year.

The teachers, who have never contributed to their health care coverage, have offered to pay 8 percent of the annual premiums, compared to the district’s proposed 15 percent.

And they have offered to reduce the $27,500 retirement benefit after 10 years of consecutive service, plus free insurance coverage for them and their dependents, while the district is seeking to drop the benefit.

At the Langhorne Coffee House, Larry Good III, Class of 2000, said he now has friends who are teachers n the district.

“I think the contract should be more in line with what people in private industry get,” said Good, who works in his family’s heating and air conditioning business. “”It’s not fair to pay 2, 3, 4 percent raises annually and not pay for health care.”

His father added, “Everyone would like to se it just be over. My sympathies are with the school board – we can’t afford it, and they [the teachers] want it.

“I hope they come up with a good resolution,” Larry Good Jr. said, “but I don’t think there will be one.”