South Middleton School Board President Thomas Merlie is convinced a recent tactic by the teachers' union will backfire and not draw support from township residents.
The school district's teachers are working under a contract that expired in June 2012, and members of the South Middleton Education Association distributed fliers to those attending a recent basketball game and wrestling match.
One side of the flier listed five of the major sticking points in the contract talks and the other side listed names and phone numbers and invited residents to contact board members at home to voice their support of the teachers.
Though Merlie was not bothered about having his phone number out there, he said it wasn’t appropriate for the union to list them — one board member’s number listed on the flier was not published in the telephone book.
“I’m an elected official. My number is in the book,” he said. “I don’t believe it is a proper approach. I don’t believe you should negotiate in the court of public opinion. If the goal was to have the community call me at home, it was unsuccessful.”
Merlie said the few emails he received were from residents in favor of the school board and upset by the union publicizing home phone numbers.
Chief Negotiator Mike Freese sees it differently. “The vast majority of the feedback received from union members passing out the fliers was positive or neutral,” said Freese, a history teacher at Boiling Springs High School. “Some people said ‘No thank you.’”
Distributions were made outside the high school at two home events during the winter sports season, he said. “None other are scheduled at the present time.”
Freese explained how union leaders thought it would benefit the association to have the public be able to voice their opinions directly to school board members. They saw the distribution of fliers as just another avenue for the public to be involved.
Merlie said the fliers have not influenced the school board or district position in any way.
“We have updated the community through our website,” Merlie said. “We have not gotten specific with any of the issues at this point in time. We have preferred to keep it professional ... under wraps as much as we could until the fact-finding is done.”
Each side in this dispute made an hour-long presentation before a state fact-finder on Feb. 6. Merlie said the school board case included the testimony of experts on the latest trends in teacher salary and benefits.
“I am confident that the district presented its case very clearly and accurate,” Merlie said. “We gave a very good presentation that was factual and easily understood.”
Freese said the presentations focused on the sticking points of salary, employee contributions toward health care and the continued ability of employees to retain their spouses on health insurance.
“The fact-finder was attentive,” Freese said. “He seemed to ask questions for clarification for both sides. We look forward to seeing what he has to say in this report.”
Wait and see
The fact-finder has until Feb. 25 to issue a final report in this case. Within 10 days, both sides are required to vote on whether to accept its findings, Freese said. “We have a tentative date for March 5.”
There is talk of both sides voting on the report on the same day, Freese said. He said that for this to take place, the board may have to reschedule its regular March 4 meeting or schedule a special meeting on March 5.
“Sooner or later, all of the issues will come out not only to the community, but to the teachers as a whole,” Merlie said. “We prefer to wait and let the fact-finding process run its course before we publicize any issues.”
Contract talks began on Dec. 22, 2011 or about six months before the old contract was set to expire on June 30, 2012. The parties reached a tentative agreement in September 2012, but it was rejected by a majority of the union membership.
After gathering information from union members, the union negotiating team returned to the table last November to discuss the sticking points, Freese said. He said the parties were unable to resolve their differences and reach a tentative agreement during the last negotiation session on Dec. 19. This prompted the union to request the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board to appoint the fact-finder.
The union represents 161 teachers, librarians, nurses and other faculty in the district’s four school buildings.