NEW BETHLEHEM – As the Redbank Valley Education Association (RVEA) enters its fourth week of a strike with no immediate end in sight, comments and actions from both sides have heated up.
According to a recent letter issued by Robert Zaruta, chief negotiator for the Redbank Valley School Board Bargaining Committee, the district rejected RVEA’s request for both sides to enter voluntary non-binding arbitration on Sept. 29. Explaining their refusal in a written statement, Zaruta said that the district has already presented its "best and final offer" and arbitration would not change that offer.
"Voluntarily agreeing to go through arbitration would be a willful waste of taxpayer money," Zaruta said. He noted further that because RVEA subsequently chose to continue the strike through Oct. 19, the district will be required to go to non-binding arbitration.
"In such a situation the commonwealth pays half of the cost of arbitration," he said. "The commonwealth will not pay anything if the district proceeds with voluntary arbitration."
Zaruta went on to say that in addition to rejecting RVEA’s request, the district offered a two-part alternative which would end the strike immediately and ensure that another strike would not take place in the spring.
First, as stated in Zaruta's letter, RVEA would put the district’s "best and final offer" to a full-member ratification vote. Secondly, if the ratification vote failed, RVEA would allow the community to decide the outcome of the RVEA contract by a Spring 2022 binding ballot referendum.
Zaruta said that contrary to concerns raised by RVEA, there is nothing in Act 88 — which outlines the procedures of collective bargaining — "which prohibits the parties from agreeing to have a referendum regarding the RVEA contract."
"While the district cannot unilaterally force a referendum, the parties can mutually agree to it," he said, stating that RVEA said it could not agree to the referendum proposal because the parties are required to follow all procedural mandates set forth under Act 88. "Yet, when the RVEA requested voluntary non-binding arbitration, it specially asked the district to disregard some Act 88 procedural mandates."
On Sept. 30, Zaruta said, RVEA rejected the proposal, which means that, barring any sudden change, the strike will continue until Oct. 19, when the teachers are required to return to the classroom.
In addition to a modified calendar ensuring that students will receive the required 180 days of instruction by June 15, both sides will be required to enter mandatory non-binding arbitration at that time.
Immediately following word that the union rejected the offer, the district terminated the teachers’ insurance coverage as of Oct. 1. Teachers may continue insurance coverage by opting into a COBRA plan at their own expense.
Dr. Chad Shaffer, chief negotiator for the district, said that the district was advised that "it is standard practice to transfer the expense of monthly health insurance premiums from the employer to the employee during a strike, and the district moved forward with doing so."
"District teachers are able to maintain their health insurance coverage by paying for a COBRA plan within sixty days, and to pay for it, they may use their health savings accounts, which the district contributed 55 percent of the funds to this year," he said.
Countering the board's action and Shaffer's suggestion, Patrick Andrekovich, UniServ Representative with the Pennsylvania State Education Association which represents Redbank’s teachers, said in an email late Tuesday afternoon that not only have the teachers not received a COBRA notice, but their HSAs have been frozen, preventing teachers from utilizing their accounts for medical expenses.
"Whether it was on purpose or accidental, the HSA accounts are frozen and teachers have not had access to those funds since Oct. 1," he said, noting that several teachers were recently denied access to their HSA accounts to purchase prescriptions, which had to be paid out-of-pocket. There is also concern for those who have scheduled appointments and may not be able to cover the expenses. "The board has put Redbank Valley taxpayers in jeopardy of paying those costs."
In fact, he continued, the Northwest Area School District lost an arbitration in 2010 and were forced to reimburse the employees for their COBRA payments and all out-of-pocket costs that would have been covered by district insurance.
Likewise, Andrekovich said that standard practice is to receive a 30-day notice prior to terminating health care coverage and making a COBRA choice.
"This decision [to terminate insurance coverage] not only affects the teachers but also their families, including many young children that attend the Redbank Valley schools," read an RVEA-generated Facebook post from Oct. 1, pointing out that this is not common practice for school boards to levy against striking teachers, especially in the midst of a pandemic. "Regardless of how you feel about the strike, we can all agree eliminating health insurance for children is uncalled for."
Regarding the district's request to involve the community, Andrekovich pointed out the board's seemingly selective use of a referendum vote.
"There were no referendums held to agree to pay an attorney $200 per hour, to establish the superintendent's salary, the severance pay for former Superintendent Dr. Mastillo, the severance pay to former Superintendent Mr. Drzweicki or to not purchase flood insurance that resulted in a $500,000 bill to the taxpayers of Redbank Valley School District," he said, adding that a "referendum" is held every four years with the election of school board directors. "The referendum issue was a clever ploy to avoid going to voluntary arbitration."
RIMERSBURG – Calling all artists and creative folks: The Friends of the Library group at the Eccles-Lesher Memorial Library in Rimersburg is seeking a logo to showcase the all-volunteer organization.
“It was suggested that the Friends develop a logo that’s different from the library’s logo,” Friends of the Library member Sandy Traister said last week, noting that many people don’t realize that while the Friends group works hand-in-hand to support the library, it is a separate group of local residents.
By having their own logo, Traister said that “people will come to recognize that logo as us” and begin to see just how much the group does to support library programs, events and projects.
Traister said that the mission of the Friends of the Library is “to advocate and raise awareness of the library and its many programs,” and that the group is a major supporter of the library’s Summer Reading program each year, as well as the used book store in the upper level of the library.
The group also holds Cookie Walk fundraisers during the summer car cruise, and at the A Christmas Present Craft Show in early November.
Traister said the Friends are also providing funding for prizes at the library’s upcoming Art Show in November, and the group supported the library’s Storybook Trail this summer.
“We try to give the library funds to do things they don’t have the money for,” Traister said.
For the logo contest, she said that it is open to all ages as long as the designer is a resident of the library’s service area, which includes Rimersburg, Sligo and East Brady boroughs, as well as Madison, Piney, Toby and Brady townships.
The contest runs through Nov. 30, with all submissions brought into the library or emailed to email@example.com.
Traister said that the Friends would like to see the logo incorporate the “Friends of the Library” name, as well as “Eccles-Lesher Memorial Library” in the design. All entries must also include the artist’s name, address, phone number and email address.
The best part, Traister said, is that the person who submits the winning design will receive a $75 Amazon gift card.
The Friends of the Library members will judge the entries and select a winner.
“We’re hoping for something that represents our mission the best,” Traister said. “And something we can use at events to spread the word about the Friends of the Library.”
CLARION – Following a year off in 2020 due to the pandemic, nearly 150 area township officials gathered once again last week, marking a milestone in the history of the Clarion County Association of Township Officials (CCATO) Convention.
The annual day-long convention, which celebrated its 100th anniversary Sept. 30 at Trinity Point Church of God in Monroe Township, has always served as a way for township officials to exchange ideas and receive up-to-date information on how to best serve their communities, but for the past 30 years CCATO has recognized an outstanding county individual and township during an afternoon awards ceremony.
Nominated by fellow elected or appointed township officials or CCATO officers, recipients of the individual and township awards are selected for efforts put forth in achieving “outstanding accomplishments” to benefit their community and to protect and improve the quality of life and safety for their residents in the past year.
This year’s recipient of the Outstanding Individual Award was Stephen Allison, auditor for Redbank Township and secretary/treasurer for CCATO.
“I want to thank everybody, especially my executive board for all the support they’ve given me throughout the years,” Allison said in accepting his award, noting that he’s worked with several “great” CCATO presidents over the years. He also expressed a “special thanks” to the organization’s assistant secretary Karen Lue Wilson for her dedication to CCATO. “She’s the backbone of this. Without her, there’s a lot of stuff I couldn’t get done.”
Allison, a Fairmount City resident, has been a Redbank Township Auditor for 26 years, and has served on the CCATO executive board for 23 years, 20 of which he has held the position of secretary/treasurer.
“During the many years that Mr. Allison has been the secretary and treasurer of CCATO, he had developed valuable professional relationships with many officials of Clarion County agencies, adjoining counties’ associations and state agencies,” Millcreek Township supervisor and CCATO president Anne Andes wrote in her nomination letter to CCATO officials. “The local Clarion County municipalities have benefitted greatly from the vast wealth of knowledge that Steve has gathered over the years.”
Andes commended Allison’s “countless hours” of preparing for the annual convention, including his efforts to gather speakers to keep Clarion County municipal officials up-to-date on day-to-day issues. She also pointed to Allison’s work in maintaining a county website that provides “pertinent information pertaining to each and every Clarion County township and official,” as well as a CCATO Facebook page “which keeps the township officials informed of resources, workshops and other training opportunities.”
Referencing Allison’s nearly three-decades-long term as an auditor, Andes wrote that Allison “possesses the accounting skills that are required to handle the treasurer duties, and has the skills and technological ability to present each board member with the CCATO finances in easy to read and understand charts.”
“I have witnessed how he performs his duties with precision while holding the positions of secretary/treasurer for our association,” she continued.
The individual award presentation returned in 2021 following a hiatus in 2019 due to lack of nominations and no convention in 2020. Likewise, there has been no recognition for Outstanding Township since 2017.
“We ask the townships to submit people for their township or an individual,” Allison said, pointing out that, again, no nominations were received for Outstanding Township this year. He explained that the award is presented to a township which has demonstrated its governmental purpose to “protect and improve the quality of life and safety of its residents.” The award can be shared between municipalities if they have collaborated on projects or services to benefit their residents. “Townships should showcase any projects that they are doing and submit them for consideration.”
In a sidenote, Allison also mentioned that even though it was the association’s 101st year in existence, 2021 marked the 100th annual convention.
According to the organization’s website, CCATO was formed in 1920 to fill the need for a centralized organization to support Clarion County’s 22 townships and to amplify each municipality’s individual voice at the county and state levels.
“Our association was formed for the purpose of discussing ideas that will help improve township governments,” the website states. “We look for and put into practice constructive methods concerning the assessment of property, the collection of taxes, the construction, improvement and maintenance of roads and the promotion of mutual cooperation among the member townships.”
“I think the 100th convention means a lot for local government,” Allison said, explaining that each year the convention brings together between 150 and 200 township supervisors, secretaries, auditors and tax collectors for a day of vendor exhibits and speaker sessions that provide educational tools and up-to-date information to help communities thrive, as well as valuable networking opportunities. “We try to give them a lot of valuable information.”
He credited the association’s longtime success to the dedication and hard work of its leaders, including its newest executive board elected at the Sept. 30 event — Bob Lewis of Monroe Township, president; Harry Smathers of Limestone Township, first vice president; Steve Ketner of Monroe Township, second vice president; Allison, secretary/treasurer; and Karen Lue Wilson of Clarion Township, assistant secretary/treasurer.
“A lot of people have done a lot of work over the years to keep it going,” Allison said of CCATO. “We’re here to serve those who serve the people.”
For more information on CCATO, visit www.clarioncountyato.org.
RIMERSBURG – As many other schools in the area have had to do this school year, Union High School sent students home on Friday and went to remote learning this week due to COVID-19 issues.
Union superintendent Dr. John Kimmel said yesterday (Tuesday) that school officials were informed on Friday of a positive case of COVID-19 which affected several staff members at the high school.
“Since we had to quarantine those staff members early in the morning, we were not able to facilitate some of our essential operations and therefore had to send students home early,” Kimmel said.
At the time of the announcement Friday morning, the high school told parents that students would be remote Monday through Wednesday this week, with the district evaluating the situation to see if students could return this Thursday, Oct. 7.
“In projecting forward to a date of possible return due to testing timelines, if no one else tests positive, they could return on Thursday and we could be operational; however, if we have additional positive cases, we may need to continue on remote learning at UHS until Monday, Oct. 11,” Kimmel said. “Given that we have a short week and no school on Friday, it is likely that we will decide to continue remote education through Thursday and reset for in-person education at UHS on Monday.”
After making those comments, Union announced Tuesday afternoon that it would remain remote on Thursday, Oct. 7. With Friday being a day off from school for Autumn Leaf Festival, the district said it expects to reopen the high school on Monday, Oct. 11.
Kimmel said that the recent events came after the past few weeks during which the area has been hit hard by COVID cases, and Union schools have seen multiple quarantines of students, along with limited staff.
“Within the guidelines for quarantines, students who are wearing masks must quarantine if within three feet for a sustained period of 15 minutes or longer,” he explained. “This generally does not happen in the classroom setting, but rather in areas where masking is not mandated such as the cafeteria. Also, although masked on buses, we have high numbers of students riding which does put students within the three feet of distance. As for staff and adults, the three-foot rule does not apply, so all adults who are unvaccinated must quarantine if within six feet of a person who tests positive.”
Try to explain to people from out of the area about the scope of Clarion’s Autumn Leaf Festival, and you’ll have many folks scratching their heads in bewilderment. After all, how many festivals prompt schools, government offices and even some businesses to shut down for a full day?
After not being able to enjoy the full breadth of ALF last year, it’s back and having a good week so far. But the biggest events are yet to come.
On Friday, Oct. 8, the ALF Farmers & Crafters Day returns to downtown Clarion, with Main Street packed with booths and crowds all the way from Second Avenue to Eighth Avenue. Entertainment in the evening will include the classic rock band “Legends” from 7:30 to 10 p.m. in downtown Clarion.
On Saturday, the morning will feature the Walk to End Alzheimer’s starting at 8 a.m. on the courthouse lawn. The big event for the day is the Tournament of Leaves Parade, which steps off at noon and winds its way through town to Clarion University’s Memorial Stadium.
Celebrating Homecoming, the Clarion University Golden Eagles will take on IUP at 2 p.m. Later in the day, oldies band “American Pie” will perform in front of the courthouse starting at 5:30 p.m.
Autumn Leaf Festival wraps up on Sunday, Oct. 10, with the Antique Tractor Show along Main Street from noon to 5 p.m., with live music by the Route 8 Band.
* * *
While you are up at ALF this week, check out the Clarion Model Railroad Club’s train displays in the basement of the Clarion Masonic Lodge along Main Street.
The display is open to the public, with free admission, on Wednesday and Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. Enter through the rear entrance.
* * *
Halloween is coming up fast, and The Leader-Vindicator has you covered with our Halloween Happenings event list, which can be found weekly in the newspaper.
To have your community’s Trick-or-Treat and other public Halloween events listed free of charge, just email the information to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* * *
Although most of Clarion County celebrates this Friday with a day off for the Autumn Leaf Festival, don’t forget that Monday is the federal holiday for Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day.
Post offices, banks and some businesses will be closed on Monday in observance.
Also, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) has announced that all driver license and photo centers will be closed Saturday, Oct. 9, through Monday, Oct. 11, in observance of Columbus Day.
* * *
Each week, The Leader-Vindicator recognizes one of our many subscribers as the Subscriber of the Week, and we publish their name on Page A-2 of the newspaper.
From those weekly winners, we also select one loyal reader as our Subscriber of the Month, who wins one free month of The L-V added to their subscription.
For September, the Subscriber of the Month is Robert Young of Fairmount City. Congratulations!
To subscribe to The Leader-Vindicator and support hometown journalism, give Adele a call at (814) 275-3131 ext. 221.