NEW BETHLEHEM – As Redbank Valley teachers prepare to return to the classroom today (Wednesday, Oct. 20) after a 27-day strike, both the union and board negotiators recently offered their weekly updates on the state of negotiations.

Addressing one of the major issues in the ongoing dispute, health insurance, the seven school board members present at a special meeting on Oct. 13 — board members Carrie Adams and Darren Bain were absent — unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the district to withdraw from the Northwest Schools Health Consortium and authorizing the intention to join the Allegheny County Schools Health Insurance Consortium (ACSHIC).

In presenting the resolution to his fellow board members, Dr. Chad Shaffer, the district’s chief negotiator who attended the meeting virtually, noted that its passage does not commit the board to make the change to the new consortium. Instead, it allows the board to seriously consider the offerings and benefits such a change might bring.

“I think the primary advantage this consortium offers is the ability to have their board, which is made up of both the labor side and the management side of member school districts, to decide how best to try to curtail healthcare costs,” Shaffer said. “The consortium offers benefits to both the district and employees.”

Board member Jason Barnett agreed.

“I’m a fan of these types of consortiums for different reasons probably than some,” he said. “I think that healthcare is getting incredibly complicated [and] it’s very, very difficult to continue to negotiate as a school board or a union.”

Noting again following the meeting that the resolution does not commit the district to any action immediately, Shaffer said it does enable ACSHIC to calculate what Redbank’s buy-in would be to enter their consortium.

“[ACSHIC] is able to enact health insurance changes on an annual basis to better control costs, compared to our current model which does so only at the time of a new contract,” he said, pointing out that its methods have produced smaller annual increases in health insurance premiums. “We anticipate the change would provide savings to the District and employees.”

Speaking on behalf of the teachers, Patrick Andrekovich, UniServ Representative with the Pennsylvania State Education Association which represents Redbank’s teachers and support staff, said that the teachers are very excited to get back in the classroom with their students following the five-week strike.

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“We are happy to hear the board is willing to move forward with possibly moving to a new health plan,” he said. “By moving to the consortium, we should be able to keep health care cost increases in check moving forward.”

Andrekovich also indicated that the board’s action should help the negotiation process move forward since the consortium sets the plan design.

“The strike will officially end on Oct. 20, and then the non-binding arbitration process will begin,” he said. “We will not hear anything from the state until after Oct. 20.”

In her email announcing the return to classes, district superintendent Amy Rupp informed students and parents that bus schedules will remain the same when students return to school on Oct. 20.

“Any students who have been transported to the Career Center during the past month will resume their regular transportation to the school on the 20th,” the email said.

Rupp also said that while class schedules have not changed, and teachers will pick up where they left off in September, students in grades 6-12 will have a new copy of their schedule available in their homerooms.

“We look forward to seeing all of your students and continuing with the #180daysoflearning,” Rupp wrote.

The email also included an important reminder that masks are still required on all school transportation and in all school buildings.

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