Teachers union holds rally in Lewisberry

John Joyce

More than 50 West Shore Education Association teachers and employees came together wearing T-shirts and waving hand-painted signs outside Crossroads Middle School in Lewisberry Thursday night in an effort to rally community support in the union's fight with the West Shore School District.

Matthew Gonce, 3, picks dandelions outside Crossroads Middle School while his mother, Alison Gonce, joins fellow West Shore Education Association teachers in protest in April. Photo by John Joyce

WSEA's 559 members — teachers, counselors, home and school visitors, librarians and psychologists — have been operating under the terms of a contract with the school district that, as of Friday, expired 600 days ago.

WSEA president and Crossroads Middle School teacher Kevin Downs said it is time both parties return to the bargaining table.

"We have been trying to negotiate for 600 days with the district. The association has come in and been prepared the whole way through, and the district has been showing up unprepared, not having the information that we need and, in a sense, dragging their feet," Downs said.

Salaries: Sticking points for both sides include the district's desire to cut new teacher's salaries. West Shore School District board secretary Ryan Argot said that West Shore teachers are among the highest salaried educators in the region.

"We want to bring starting salaries (for teachers) closer in line with current market values," Argot said. He said a market study comparing other area school districts of similar size showed West Shore would still be ahead, as far salaries go, if the cuts were made.

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokeswoman Lauri Lebo said cutting incoming teacher's salaries hurts both the educators and the students.

Rising costs of living as well as tuition costs and student loan debt are already diminishing the ranks of future educators. By cutting future teachers' salaries, the district might be forcing home-grown educators to look out of state for employment, she said.

"We are always concerned about a brain drain," Lebo said. "We want to know our best and brightest students who want to become teachers also want to stay in Pennsylvania."

The pay cuts hurt the students by lowering the professional quality of their future teachers,she added.

Fact-finding report: Lebo said the district could have ended the stalemate at anytime over the last two years, but it refuses to budge.

The West Shore School Board rejected a state-appointed official's fact-finding report, she said, that could have ended more than two years of negotiations.

"The teachers voted to accept it. The board unanimously rejected it," she said.

Argot admits the board voted unanimously — not once, but twice — on April 7 (9 to 0) and on April 14 (8 to 0) against a new contract based on the fact-finding report.

Rally: The teachers lined up outside Crossroads Middle Thursday night said they want what everybody wants: fair pay and health care.

Megan Arensdorf and Alison Gonce both teach at Red Land High School.

"We are here to support our profession," Gonce said.

West Shore parent Pam Grunden has four children enrolled in the district's schools, a ninth-grader in ROTC at Cedar Cliff High School and triplets in seventh-grade at New Cumberland Middle.

She said the contract dispute carries over to the classroom.

"The impact (is) day to day. You worry about obvious things, a strike, the normal summer plans," she said. "You don't want a break in their education."

Back to the table: The one thing each party agreed to, from the teachers union to the parents and the district, is that it is time to return to the negotiating table.

Argot, who agreed to speak on the record only if his voice was not recorded, said he believed a return to negotiations would occur naturally.

He stopped short, however, of answering what the district is willing to concede or what it is prepared to do if the teacher's union did strike.

"I am not going to answer that," Argot said.

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