Support staff protestors

St. Marys Area School District support staff workers, including secretaries and children’s aides, gathered outside the high school in protest on May 13.

ST. MARYS — Thursday’s bargaining session between the St. Marys Area School District and St. Marys Education Support Professional Association (SMESPA) resulted in legal action being taken against the district.

SMASD and the union have been going back and forth for months now, aiming to find a resolution for subcontracting its support staff. Dozens of teachers aides, secretaries and others gathered outside of St. Marys Area High School in protest prior to the monthly board meeting on May 13.

The SMASD negotiations team allegedly told union leaders it plans to outsource all 68 support-staff jobs, including facilitators, tutors and nurses aids, according to Pennsylvania State Education Association Representative Lucy Harlow.

SMASD Superintendent Brian Toth said this information is “completely incorrect. Outsourcing by attrition is, and has been, on the table. Thus, be careful of (using) the word ‘all’ to incite fear.”

In a news release, SMESPA President Michele Burdick said regardless of whether or not jobs are outsourced when employees retire or all at once, it “devalues jobs.

“Almost 1,000 people have signed petitions opposing outsourcing these jobs, and our members oppose it, yet they continue to push their proposal,” she said. “They are trying to sell their plan by saying it will only impact future employees, but the truth is, any job can be recreated and then subcontracted.”

“Our support staff employees are the backbone of our school system and it is incredibly important that the district be able to attract and retain the best quality people to work with our children,” Burdick said. “Employee turnover will become an issue if the jobs are devalued.”

Toth said at the last meeting that he told union members that tutors, facilitators and health aides would not be subcontracted.

“The superintendent forced the teachers’ union to file an unfair labor practice charge with the state labor board because he outsourced a guidance counselor’s position to a private company,” Harlow said in the news release. “He has forced the support-staff union to file a charge because he created a new non-union position that includes the job duties of a union employee.

Harlow also accused Toth and the district of “violating the state bargaining law by individually meeting with employees and talking about outsourcing with them.”

Harlow said she anticipates the unfair labor practice charge to be filed against the school district next week for “bargaining in bad faith” and violating the law.

“I am not bargaining individually, but when staff ask me questions because they are left in the dark by their union, I answer their question,” Toth said. He also denies that the district outsourced a guidance counselor, saying that a mental-health counselor was provided for students.

“We created one new position and reworked another job description,” Toth said. “The support staff PSEA filed an unfair labor practice charge because they want these in the union. They never discussed these positions with us. So, I did not ‘cause’ them to do anything.”

According to Harlow, the situation in St. Marys is “unusual,” and districts typically work well with union members to achieve a contract best for students, employees and the community. “It’s very rare for districts to even consider outsourcing support staff, because they recognize how important these employees are to the success of the school district.”

Toth said SMASD wants to work with its staff and very much values them and the work they do.

“We would appreciate if the union would work with us to work out issues,” he said.

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