On the first day that high schools operated by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were closed by a teachers' strike, an ad hoc group announced that it would urge parents to withhold tuition until the 16,000 students return to school.
Theresa Keel of North Wales said Wednesday that she and other parents from Lansdale Catholic High had formed Catholic Parents Respond (CPR) because they were frustrated by the contract stalemate. She hopes parents from across the five-county region will join the coalition and share concerns via the group's Facebook page.
"To get the kids back in school, that is our only goal," said Keel, who said her two teenage daughters were eager to begin classes. "The students seem to have been left out of the equation."
Her daughter Shannon, 14, said she had been looking forward to starting her freshman year at the school where her sister Emily, 16, is a junior.
"It's just frustrating for the kids not to know what to do and not being informed of anything," Shannon said. "We're just waiting to get back into school."
Her mother added: "I don't want to take sides. I just feel it is imperative to get this done. When you hit someone in their pocketbook, it usually gets their attention."
Tuition at the 17 archdiocesan high schools is $5,600 annually, and parents make scheduled payments throughout the academic year. The first payments for the 2011-12 school were due in the summer.
Mary Rochford, superintendent of Catholic schools, said of the new coalition: "We are always interested in what our parents think, feel, and say."
Rochford said she had heard that only three parents from the new organization attended Wednesday afternoon's briefing for reporters outside Lansdale Catholic.
Although the parents' group was experiencing some technical difficulties with Facebook, Keel's husband, Frank, a public relations consultant, said 55 followers had signed on by 5 p.m.
Parents at other high schools, including Father Judge in the city's Holmesburg section, said they also were discussing delaying tuition payments.
"We're not going to tolerate this," said Lisa George, whose son Zachary is a junior at the boys' school.
"Parents are getting very frustrated seeing their tuition being wasted," she said. "Personally, if the doors are closed, so is my checkbook."
George said she had e-mailed both Rochford and Rita Schwartz, president of the Association of Catholic Teachers Local 1776, expressing concerns about the strike.
Caroline Guy's daughter Megan is a senior at Little Flower in Hunting Park, and son Kevin is a sophomore at Roman Catholic High in central Philadelphia. Guy said she was not sure if she would withhold tuition but was interested in working with other parents to end the impasse.
"I'm assuming it's going to take parents and teachers and someone from the outside to resolve this," she said.
"It's almost like a power struggle between the teachers and the Office of Catholic Education," Guy said.
The two sides have been in contract talks since March. They were back at the bargaining table Wednesday and were working hard to find an agreement, the archdiocese said.
The union and the archdiocese have been at odds over the archdiocese's desire to overhaul the contract to reflect what it sees as the altered educational landscape of the 21st century, and to give it greater flexibility and control over teaching assignments and scheduling.
The 711 lay teachers have been on strike since they overwhelmingly rejected the archdiocese's contract proposal Sept. 6 over proposed changes in working conditions and job security and the archdiocese's plans to hire more part-time teachers.
Wednesday was the first day all students were out of school. The students began returning last week for staggered orientation and testing sessions under the supervision of administrators and members of religious orders. The Office of Catholic Education said Tuesday that it would close the high schools until the strike was settled.
Also Tuesday, the archdiocese rejected the union's proposal to return to the classroom while talks continued with help from an outside mediator. The archdiocese said it was turning down the request for a mediator "because of the unique issues facing Catholic schools." The archdiocese has not elaborated on what those issues are.
Meanwhile, 16 teachers on the picket line outside Little Flower were cheered by the arrival Wednesday morning of about 25 uniformed students who carried signs saying "We Support Our Little Flower Teachers" and sang the school's alma mater.
"It really made us feel good," said Teresa Hooten, who teaches physics at the girls' school.
At Roman, a dozen striking teachers were gathered in the parking lot at lunch time, eating pizza provided by a parent.
"This is our seventh day, and it almost seems like a tug-of-war," said Theresa Lazorko, who teaches accounting, economics, and technology. "Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth."
She said teachers wanted to return to the classroom and were mystified by the archdiocese's rejection of mediation.
Maureen Logan, who teaches history and psychology at Roman, said the dispute was about "job security, work conditions, fair labor practices."
Colleague Bill Lyons, who teaches English, said he was disappointed a strike had occurred.
"When we went to the union hall a week ago to vote, I've been doing this for 30 years, and, you know, you go into the hall and see people you've talked with in different places," he said. "It's like a family reunion. Not one of those 700 people wanted to strike, not one of them."
Yet members voted 589-60 to reject the archdiocese's proposed contract.
"These are conservative, devout, churchgoing Catholics," Lyons said. "They've been part of this system for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. They didn't want this, and it's a reflection of just how bad the system's stance was. They're being completely unrealistic. They're being unreasonable."