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Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Teachers, Administrators Still at Odds in Pa. District

Teachers, Administrators Still at Odds in Pa. District

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Though the district's contentious experiment in private management is over, turmoil persists in the Wilkinsburg, Pa., public schools, where administrators and teachers are engaged in a long-running contract dispute.

Officials of the 2,000-student system are hoping that an arbitration process slated to begin this month can end the labor strife that resulted in an eight-day teachers' strike just before the winter break.

The Wilkinsburg educators have been working without a new collective bargaining agreement for more than four years. Although the district and the teachers' union have agreed on one-year contract extensions since then, teachers have received only longevity raises during that period.

While seeking a pay increase, the teachers have also balked this school year at a district proposal to cut costs by shifting health-insurance coverage to a managed-care program.

A History of Dispute

Rifts between labor and management are nothing new in the Wilkinsburg district, which serves a densely populated community adjacent to Pittsburgh. ("Heavy Artillery Weighs in as Fight Over Pa. District Escalates," April 12, 1995.)

State of PennsylvaniaIn 1995, the local school board hired Alternative Public Schools Inc. to run one of its three elementary schools. (The Nashville, Tenn.-based firm changed its name to Beacon Education Management LLC in 1997.) The deal was quickly challenged in court by the Wilkinsburg Education Association, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the National Education Association.

The case went to the state supreme court, which sent it back to the trial court. A judge ruled in 1997 that state law did not permit profit-making groups to run public schools. As a result, Beacon pulled out of the district last summer.

The teachers' union contends that the expense of the failed privatization effort contributed greatly to the system's current financial bind.

But district officials say the claim is overblown. While the district's $18.2 million annual budget hasn't grown in recent years, the per-pupil cost at the privately run school was about on par with that at the system's other two elementary schools, they said.

"Certainly, [the management arrangement] may have had a role in terms of the money devoted toward that effort," said Matthew Hoffman, the lawyer serving as the district's chief negotiator. "But even without the privatization effort, I believe the district would be in the same financial situation."

Despite a high tax rate relative to the rest of the region, the lack of wealth in Wilkinsburg means the district cannot easily increase school funding, he said.

Frustrated with the pace of negotiations, the teachers walked off the job Dec. 2. They returned Dec. 14 after agreeing the talks should go to an arbitrator this month. The arbitrator's conclusions are nonbinding, however, and Pennsylvania labor law allows the teachers to strike for about another week before the end of the school year.

Since privatization ended, "things have gotten a lot better in the schools," union negotiator Barbara Bell said. "Hopefully, we can put all this behind us."

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 3

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