NEW BETHLEHEM – After 808 days (as of Wednesday) without a contract and no negotiation session set until Sept. 23, members of the Redbank Valley Education Association (RVEA) began the week with a previously announced strike.

Speaking on behalf of RVEA, Patrick Andrekovich, UniServ Representative with the Pennsylvania State Education Association which represents Redbank’s teachers and support staff, pointed out that only members of RVEA are striking. The district’s support professionals are not.

“We’re still negotiating,” Andrekovich said of the support staff. “We’re pretty close there, but I think the hang up from the district’s perspective is that they don’t want to do anything with the support professionals until we have the health insurance issues resolved for the teachers.”

Nearly 80 members of RVEA spent the first morning of the labor strike on Monday splitting duties between the picket line in front of the high school and strike headquarters. Later in the afternoon, many of the teachers engaged in community service at the Redbank Valley Public Library.

The main issues at this point, based on comments from both sides in the dispute, appear to be salary and health insurance.

“We feel like the proposed two-year [pay] freeze, making changes to health insurance, implementing co-pays, we’ve [offered] over $1 million in savings,” Andrekovich said. “I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request for us to ask them to find some money to save.”

Andrekovich went on to say that the board has about $3.5 million in their fund balance, a $1 million surplus this year and $3.5 million coming to the district in COVID relief money.

“I think there’s $140,000 in there somewhere that they could use to stop the strike and get the kids back into the classroom,” he said, pointing to the additional amount the board requested that the union find in savings during the last negotiation session on Sept. 8. “It’s time for the board to step up and at least meet us part of the way.”

Dr. Chad Shaffer, chief negotiator for the school board, countered by saying that during the most recent negotiating session on Sept. 8, board members explained that, while they could not accept the teachers’ salary request, the board was willing to “commit up to 70 percent of new tax revenue to cover expense increases guaranteed by the contract.”

According to information provided by the board, the current benefits package for teachers with a bachelor’s degree ranges from a $93,679.68 total package (step BS 4.5), including a salary of $49,413, to a $119,365.84 package (step BS 15), including a salary of $67,427. Those with a master’s level range from a total package of $86,612.92 (step MS 1), including a salary of $44,457, to a $121,547.47 total package (step MS 15), including a salary of $68,957.

Shaffer stated further that the board’s negotiation committee and business office are working to construct salary and benefit options that will increase annual costs to the maximum limit.

“Since we historically spend 65-70 percent of our annual budget on the teacher and support staff contracts, the board is willing to allot this percentage of the new revenue to the contracts in order to provide raises and limit employee healthcare cost increases,” Shaffer said. “The district’s fund balance savings and federal COVID-related monies may be used to provide one-time incentives, but should not be used to fund ongoing expenses like recurring salaries.”

Shaffer went on to say that the board will be ready to present these suggested raises and a comprehensive contract proposal next week.

“I am sure everyone is hopeful that this will result in a contract settlement,” he said.

Describing in detail the timeline set in motion by the strike, Andrekovich said that the union will soon receive notification from the state on the date that they have to return to work.

“We have to get our 180 days in by June 15,” he said. “Accounting for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, when we obviously wouldn’t have school, I’m guessing [that] mid-October is what they’re going to tell us when we have to be back.”

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Once back in the classroom, the two parties would then go into non-binding arbitration, Andrekovich explained. If there is no progress with non-binding arbitration, or if either side votes it down, then the June 30 deadline for completing the full 180-day school year would be imposed.

“If we went through the non-binding arbitration process and either side voted [it] down, there is a possibility of a second strike in the spring, but the last possible date would be June 30,” said Andrekovich. “But for right now, we’re working off that June 15 date.”

Emphasizing that the teachers do not want the current strike to drag on until the middle of October, Andrekovich reiterated that the union is ready to meet any day, any time. He went on to note that everything would change the moment an agreement is reached.

“Obviously, we’re not happy to be here, but we believe in our proposal,” he said. “We haven’t heard from them at any point saying that the information we’re putting out there is inaccurate.”

Shaffer, too, commented on the willingness and desire of the board to resolve the matter quickly.

“I think the board and negotiations committee are as frustrated as the teachers are [and] both sides want to see this contract settled,” he said.

Shaffer indicated that it his hope that the district having recently named a new superintendent will aid the process.

“From our standpoint, a new administration is bringing fresh ideas and energy to go along with a one-time influx of federal dollars,” he said. “We want to see the board, administration, teachers and support staff unite to take advantage of this opportunity and maximize our educational efforts now.”

For her part, newly promoted superintendent Amy Rupp highlighted in a recent letter the activities that are and are not disrupted as a result of the strike.

“Students who attend the career center will be able to continue to attend the career center, and those students who attend classes in an outside district will also attend,” she said, noting further that transportation will continue to be provided.

District-sponsored extracurricular activities will also continue throughout the strike.

Rupp went on to urge civility and respect from all parties involved.

“Many of our teachers live in the community, allowing us to teach our neighbors’ kids, our friends’ kids and even our coworkers’ kids,” she wrote. “Because of this, issues such as a work stoppage (strike) can be especially challenging for our community. We strive to treat our students like our own children, and we all have a vested interest in their achievement and their future.”

“It is not necessary that we agree with one another on every issue,” she continued. “It is necessary, however, that we respect each other and strive to understand one another better.”

The next negotiation session is scheduled for Sept. 23.

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