The New Hope-Solebury School Board and teachers union have been slugging it out in slow motion this past year over a new contract to replace the one that expired June 30.
Meanwhile, teachers are operating under “work to rule,” sticking to their contractual hours under the old contract, or about 7.5 hours daily.
The conservative Doylestown Intelligencer took a swipe at New Hope-Solebury teachers in a Dec. 6 editorial, saying that “if taxpayers got a look at union demands, they’d likely to [sic] show up at the next town council or school board meeting with pitchforks and torches.”
But documents published by the New Hope-Solebury (NH-S) school board and conversations with those knowledgeable about negotiations don’t point to an insurmountable gap between bargaining positions. In key areas like salaries and benefits, the two sides seem at first glance to be roughly in the same ballpark.
“The association doesn’t feel like we’re that far apart in the final numbers,”explained Yona Rose, chief negotiator for the New Hope-Solebury Education Association. “How we get there is where we are at odds right now.”
“The proposals are far apart, but discussions are amiable,” observed NH-S School Board President John J. Capriotti. “There’s a lack of understanding on both sides on how each side is costing — the teachers don’t understand how we’ve been costing, or think we’re being overly pessimistic.”
Capriotti sees nothing but budgetary deficits ahead for the school district no matter which proposal ultimately prevails.
“We will still be incrementally more in the red every year,” he said. “Our proposal assumes we will take the maximum allowed tax increase permitted each year. If the teachers get what they want, we’re going to run out of money in a couple of years. Our projections are that if the teachers accept our offer, we’ll still be operating at an ever-increasing deficit.”
Rose said that teachers recognize the district’s budgetary constraints, but are concerned about being able to keep pace with the cost of living.
“The association wants a fiscally responsible contract that maintains the district’s ability to pay for the staff and staff needs equally,” Rose said. “Taxpayer money is not only used to pay for student programs, but also pays for teachers that run, develop, and enhance the programs that engage students. Teachers are seeking a fair annual increase to keep up and provide stability in an ever more expensive world, while trying to be fair to the community.”
For now, the teachers union is pressing on with its demands, while teachers operate on their contractual “work to rule” basis under which work after school or during lunchtime is excluded.
“It’s our only way of communicating to the community that we’re having trouble getting a contract,” Rose explained. “Every teacher struggles with the decision with work to rule, and desperately wants to get back to the way things were. They miss their extracurricular work, and the feeling of helping, teaching, and guiding. It was not a simple decision, and not meant to harm anybody, but its all we can do at this particular time.”
The observable impact on students seems minimal, with fewer quizzes in class perhaps, or a longer wait for parents expecting a call back from a teacher.
Where next for negotiations?
“I’ve told the school board that I want to have a review of the development of the budget, and then if we’re comfortable, do the same exercise with the bargaining group,” Capriotti said. “If we can come to agreement on the financial basis of the negotiations, then we can have more fruitful negotiations.”
Capriotti said he’ll be asking for a “quick turnaround” on the review from the school board — about half of whom are new to their jobs — at a Dec. 21 executive session.
“The district hasn’t brought a proposal or compromise since June,” Rose observed. “We are actively working toward finding common ground, and are looking forward to their providing some movement in the conversation.”