Pennsylvania lawmakers pass new limits on fireworks as July Fourth nears

York City teachers reject contract offer; charter conversion possibility looms

Erin James
The York Dispatch

This article was originally published June 5, 2014.

Time is running out for the York City School District to avoid a 100 percent conversion to charter schools by September 2015.

This week, the district's teachers union voted to reject the latest proposal from the district for a new collective-bargaining agreement, according to Kimberly Bolt, a teacher and the union's membership chair.

Without an agreement with significant wage and benefit concessions, the district is facing a $4.9 million deficit in the 2014-15 budget. State law requires school districts to pass a balanced budget by June 30 of each year, and the school board is scheduled to vote June 25.

The lack of a new contract also triggers a provision of the district's state-mandated financial recovery plan that would turn the district over to external charter providers.

"Although we have worked diligently to try and get those provisions of the recovery plan put into a collective-bargaining agreement, that has not happened," said David Meckley, the district's state-appointed chief recovery officer.

Meckley declined to identify a deadline for a contract agreement that could avoid district-wide conversion to charter schools.

"The longer it goes, the more difficult it is," he said.

Timetable: A memo Meckley sent to Carolyn Dumaresq, the state's acting secretary of education, shines some light on the behind-closed-doors negotiations.

The document was provided to The York Dispatch by Sean Summers, an attorney representing parents and students of New Hope Academy Charter School in a federal lawsuit filed against the district and some school board members. Summers acquired the memo through the lawsuit's discovery process.

The document is not dated, but Meckley said he sent it to Dumaresq in late November.

In it, Meckley writes, there are "many minor issues remaining," but "the main obstacle is the length of the CBA (collective-bargaining agreement)."

"I have been firm on a 'contract that reflects the provisions of the recovery plan for the duration of the recovery plan,' and the union has been firm on a one year contract," he wrote.

Meckley goes on to tell Dumaresq that he and members of the Community Education Council — a volunteer group charged with overseeing the district's recovery plan — are moving forward to develop a Request for Proposals from potential charter providers. He estimates "at least 12 months would be required from the time a contract was signed for schools to open under a new outside provider."

"With all that said, watching the progress of the district this year, along with the hard line the teachers' union has taken, in my opinion (and in Dr. Holmes' opinion as well), if we want to transform the School District of the City of York, we need to move forward with a solid plan to go 100 percent charter effective September 2015," Meckley said in the memo.

Meckley then goes on to outline necessary steps to achieve that goal.

Asked for comment, Superintendent Eric Holmes referred to a statement from the Levin Legal Group, which is representing the district and its school board members in the New Hope lawsuit.

The statement addresses allegations in the lawsuit but does not specifically address Meckley's memo.

In the memo, Meckley said consultants have advised that the school board should endorse the decision to go 100 percent charter to send a strong message to potential providers.

"The obvious consequence of this could be a substantial deterioration of teacher (morale), increase in terminations, and difficulty finding personnel in general," he wrote.

Bruce Riek, president of the teachers union, did not return calls for comment.

Matter of concessions: Reached by phone Tuesday, Meckley said his opinion to go 100 percent charter expressed in the memo "was based upon the difficulty obtaining a collective-bargaining plan that reflects the recovery plan."

"I think what this memo clearly outlines is that we have absolutely followed the recovery plan," he said.

The plan requires concessions from the union, which has not agreed, he said.

Meckley said he anticipates a Request for Proposals will be finished this summer, "which could lead to agreements being signed as early as the fall of 2014 for start of operation in 2015."

The strategy to return the district to financial solvency, which has been implemented this year, is called the internal-transformation model, which emphasizes site-based management as a way of achieving performance goals. The model was proposed by union and administration leaders.

Charter conversions are the alternative if the transformation model does not achieve its performance goals or if the district is not able to achieve its financial goals.

For example, Meckley pointed to a part of the plan that establishes a deadline for School Advisory Councils to develop "school-based improvement plans."

"Any school that has failed to develop an improvement plan by November 30, 2013, or that cannot produce evidence of having implemented a plan and tracked the results of that implementation, will be subject to operation by an external education provider as early as the 2014-15 school year," according to page 26 of the recovery plan.

Each school committee developed the plans before the deadline. However, the Community Education Council voted in November not to approve the plans because the district's teachers union had not yet agreed to a new collective-bargaining agreement with the district.

The council cannot endorse plans that would position the district for a budget deficit, Meckley said.

And, without a new collective-bargaining agreement that reflects the concessions in the recovery plan, that's what would happen, he said.

State's stance: In an emailed statement, Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller said: "Full district conversion has always been an option for York. To the extent any action sought to be taken by the district is inconsistent with the plan, the plan would have to be amended. Also, Mr. Meckley is the CRO (chief recovery officer) and the Board of School Directors is still the body that makes the operating/governing decisions; he could not do this unilaterally."

Summers said the potential switch to charter schools would be especially difficult for students at New Hope, which holds its last day of classes Tuesday.

District officials are planning for hundreds of those students to enroll in district schools for the 2014-15 academic year.

"The fact that they are willing to pull the New Hope children out of New Hope for one year when they know they're going to go 100 percent charter the next year is disappointing to say the least," Summers said. "Now these kids are going to be forced to change education environments twice."