Pattye Benson

Community Matters

T/E School District and Teacher Union Contract Negotiation Honeymoon Period Over

The contract negotiations between the T/E School District and the T/E Teachers Union (TEEA) started in early January. What is the saying about the ‘calm before the storm’ – I had been thinking that the teacher contract negotiations must have been going well as everything was quiet.

In a Community Matters post, Expert Negotiators Named as TESD Teacher Contracts Talks Begin, dated January 28, 2012, I wrote the following:

“ … With a cooperative tone, both sides have issued their preliminary statements – the school board recognizing the quality and standard of the District’s teachers but reinforcing the severity of our economic times. And the teachers union proudly applauding the school district as one of the best in the state and stating their desire to work together through the contract negotiations…”

This week in the Tredyffrin-Easttown School District would suggest that I might have spoken too quickly. First, the T/E School Board publicly stated in a contract negotiation update on the school district’s website that ‘TEEA Negotiator Refuses to Discuss Healthcare Options”. The school district’s negotiator, Jeffrey Sultanik claims that TEEA “does not want any changes to the existing plan or premium share increases for the employee”. Sultanik suggests that the negotiator for the teachers union, Ruthann Waldie, refuses to budge on the healthcare issue. The school board has made it clear from the start that the teacher contract needs to focus on reducing healthcare costs. Having attended a number of finance committee meetings of the school district, the teacher’s benefits are routinely discussed, especially healthcare.

When the school districts’ negotiating team was named (Dan Waters, Sue Tiede and Art McDonnell in addition to Jeffrey Sultanik), I shared TEEA’s concern that there was no school board director serving on the negotiating team. The residents of TESD elected the school board members to serve them and at least one of them should be ‘at the negotiating table’. One of the school board directors, Kevin Buraks, is an attorney who specializes in the collection of unpaid real estate taxes in municipalities and school districts in Pennsylvania. Certainly, given his background, Buraks would have been qualified at the very least to participate as a contract negotiation ‘observer’. As far as I know (please correct me if I’m wrong) no prior contract negotiations in T/E school district ever occurred absent school board directors.

Soon after the school district posted the contract negotiations update on their website, TEEA fired back with a response that suggested the school district’s update is “a collection of factual inaccuracies, misinformation, mischaracterizations and personal attacks”. The response from the teacher’s union suggests a willingness and desire to negotiate issues … but at the bargaining table, not through press releases and websites, as the path that TEEA believes the school district has chosen.

Because there is no representation by the school board at the negotiation table, it is a bit like ‘whisper down the lane’. The information and updates that the school board receives are not through first hand attendance at the meetings, it is from one of the four members of the negotiating team. That’s not to suggest that the school district is intentionally misleading the public through its updates, but I would suggest that some of the nuances that occur in a meeting can be missed in the translation.

According to TEEA, the teachers union has presented a comprehensive set of proposals to the school district and are willing to discuss “the district’s finances, staffing levels, school calendar, health insurance, wages and all other important issues …”

As a taxpayer in this school district, I want to know that the contract negotiation updates are completely accurate … can the school board members provide that reassurance to the public. On the other hand, having attended a number of school district finance committee meetings, I also know that the current teacher healthcare benefits exceed much of what most of the residents of this school district receive themselves.

We are fortunate to live in one of the best school districts in the state and preserving that school system should be a priority to the residents, school district and the teachers. The new teacher’s contract needs to be line with our current economic reality. However, the negotiation process should be accomplished with a spirit of collaboration.

According to TEEA and the school district, there is no next negotiation session scheduled. I make a motion to move the contract negotiation process forward; do I hear a second?

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    1. I am sure it would be uncomfortable for both, but I have a feeling that the administrators would like it a lot less.

    2. At the very least I would like to see the 113 page set of demands that the district put forth and the initial contract the union proposed. I know neither is what you end up with, but just seeing what the overall changes both sides were proposing would be interesting.

  1. When I click on response to read the TEEA’s response to the districts public posting about negotiations…nothing comes up…can you fix that?

  2. I think the fact that this initial shot fired over the district (and union) bow is so obvious (health care costs), it is clear why no board members will participate. It would be a huge waste of time to sit there and listen to proposals when there is only one elephant in the room — a $20,000 health care plan.
    I have said it here and elsewhere. I would stop negotiating health care altogether. I would negotiate compensation. I would tell the union what the district will offer towards health care, and let the minions at the PSEA work with the providers to purchase a plan that would be well priced and include what they think teachers want. The national headlines lately about what is included in Obamacare and what is mandated is exactly the problem school districts have had forever. No one even talks about the costs — they just talk about the plan. Even the plan being offered by TESD — which offers a substantial savings initially — still is health care without any cap on the cost. If the price of that plan rises, where is the employee incentive to control it? None.
    The rules are new folks. We have to stop thinking that negotiations are really about negotiating…and not about just wearing each other out with demands. The TESD ends up bidding against itself when the union says NO….so TESD says “well how about….?”
    I do not agree with a negotiating team of administrators, as their own plan is tied to the teacher plan. But I can assure you that board members have too much at stake — especially those with kids in the buildings. And since we know this is going to be a long and drawn out game — one move at a time — why waste anyone’s time?
    Cynical? Sorry. Bottom line is that health care is a cost — not a right. It’s compensation. When the cost of the plan goes up, no one knows they got a raise. It’s time for them to hurt when the cost of the plan goes up….and negotiate wages to cover it. That’s where the real issue NEEDS to lie.

    1. But why is it that this is the first time in TE’s history that no administrator will sit in on negotiations….wouldn’t they want to know first hand what is going on?

        1. TE administrators negotiated contracts in the 70’s without the presence of school board members. So it is not the first time in TE’s history.

  3. We’re at the “he said; she said” stage. The union leadership will be characterizing the board as uncaring, aloof and deceptive to garner support from the public, but, most importantly, to energize the rank and file teachers.
    What we need now is a summary of the offers from both sides to determine which, if either, is reasonable and accurate.
    We probably won’t see either until the fall when the teachers return to classes without a contract.

  4. Township – I agree with you. The union’s idea of “negotiating” is to say that HC cannot be changed.

    Sorry, that won’t work anymore. The parents won’t be extorted either. Yes, it is a great school district but reality needs to intrude.

    1. Except that the statement is not true. That wasn’t the union’s position. So can we get honesty along with reality?

  5. “It was revealed during negotiations that the Tredyffrin/Easttown teachers union does not want any changes to the existing plan or premium share increases for the employee,” Sultanik said. “Ms. Waldie’s refusal to begin discussing the critical aspect of health care is baffling and disappointing to the district.”
    According to Waldie, Sultanik’s statements are a “collection of factual inaccuracies, misinformation, mischaracterizations and personal attacks.”
    “Not a single school board member is part of the district’s negotiating team,” she said in the prepared statement. “Instead of negotiating, the district has produced a 113-page set of demands it refuses to discuss. It also refuses to discuss the comprehensive set of proposals TEEA has presented to it.”

    A classic distraction technique by the union. You have your focus on one thing? Wave a red flag and say, “look over here”. This is 101 stuff. It will not work this time.

  6. OK – can someone produce the “comprehensive” set of proposals from TEEA that cover the exploding costs of health care and how they will be reigned in?

  7. This is the first step in a long process – a process which will follow the PSEA playbook to a T.

    All one needs to do is look at other nearby districts to see how this plays out. North Penn SD in Montgomery County went through this last year.

    Regardless of what the issue that arose, the teachers’ union always puts out a press release saying they are willing to negotiate — when, in fact, they don’t. All you have to do is look at what they send to the arbitration (if they get there.) In NPSD, what the Teachers’ Union put forth for arbitration was almost exactly what the Administration had been saying from day one in their communications (ie. no healthcare plan changes, etc) that the union had sworn time and again they were willing to negotiate.

    I don’t trust the TEAA to play fair or honest in this, because they have (like NPSD and others) brought in the PSEA’s team. I think the teachers themselves are fine, but have done themselves a grave disservice by bringing in the PSEA team which resulted in the District bringing in a hired gun. This could be done better with local people working it out.

    By the way, i can’t wait to start hearing about how the District only wants to hurt kids and TEAA doesn’t — that’s like play #2 or #3.

    1. What makes you trust the administrators? They and the school board withheld the information that the teachers had volunteered to give up days of salary at the end of the year to help balance the budget last year even before other districts started taking pay freezes or our district asked the union do so. Even after the withholding of information, they took a voluntary 1/2 year pay freeze (which by the way the didn’t have to do because of their contract). On top of that, you don’t think its weird that the district hired a PR firm for negotiations (with your tax money by the way)….I do. Plus, the district placed their negative statement of “Refusal to Bargain” right on the front page of the district website knowing full well that the union does not have the ability to do the same.

      1. “Trust the administrators”?
        Squeeze — don’t start drinking the PSEA kool-aid this soon in the process. Trust has no place in this process — at all. The fact that you suggest that the teachers offered to give up salary days is indicative of the danger of trusting. The teachers made no such offer — because unless you contract for something, it’s not real. And this whole pay freeze crap is tiring. They deferred raises….but their “base” is just where it was going to be. They will negotiate forward from this base.
        TRUST is when you shake hands. Negotiations are when you posture and caucus and obfuscate. “Not a single board member” is the silliest thing they could say. Every board member will be part of this process — way more than most if any teachers. The past two TEEA Presidents left their post — that was from the stress of working for teachers while keeping the PSEA talking points alive. No trust. Put it in writing. The Union has their own website and has the ability to do whatever they want. They can use the newspapers to make their claims…anything they choose. There is no upper hand here — except the teachers have it to the extent that refusing to bargain means they keep what they have….which is what is unaffordable. So please….no one wants to hurt kids….no one is to be trusted. No one lies. But this game is so predictable that it’s almost silly to chronicle it. What they will end up with they could do tomorrow….and I stand by the notion that there should be no negotiating. Just dollars and cents….or should I spell it “sense?”

        1. From what I understood was that they would stay at the same salary as last year for the first half of the year and then get paid at the 2012 contract rate for the second half of the year. I thought that is freezing pay…isn’t there salary already set to increase at a certain rate for the length of the agreement unless they get a masters or doctorate?

    2. Also are the administrators taking pay cuts and changing their benefits. Isn’t it our own Dan Waters that gets to use our tax money for a car and his kids education?

      And why would the teachers union want to hurt kids?

      1. Where is it written that changing your benefits is taking a pay cut? It is not free health care — it’s health coverage. “Our tax money” for a car is part of his compensation package. He has one kid who finished college years ago….again — a compensation package. market driven. Teachers won’t even discuss market driven issues. The administrators are reviewed annually and raises are tied to performance. Teachers contract for their salary. Not even apples and oranges here.

        1. and who reviews the administrators? What is their performance based on…how well the school performs? Who has more of a hand in that…the teachers or the administrators?

      2. Squeeze,

        Please tell us which of the schools in the district you teach at? It is very obvious. Hopefully you are not an English teacher….

        1. I don’t teach at any school but I do volunteer weekly in my child’s elementary school and see what it is really like in the schools. Just because I don’t bash the union’s position like everyone else on the board makes me wrong and a teacher…i see.

        2. Also, making fun of someone’s writing skills on an informal blog to get at them is really mature. If you want to do that why don’t you go converse with some teenagers in a chat room.

      3. I am fully in agreement with this as well. There need to be concessions/changes on BOTH sides.

  8. The teacher’s union needs to take a step into the real world. Healthcare on the realm of what private sector employees have to foot, and a phasing out of the pension system. 401K is the reality. Hey, I’d love to retire at age 50 and receive a steady income stream for the rest of my life on the back of the taxpayer, but it’s obvious it ain’t working anymore.

    Or they can keep with the status quo, and we’ll see stratospheric tax increases and reduced services in our school (paying for sports anyone?).

    1. So is most of the public, the board, whomever saying that the main problem for our budget is the teacher contract. There is no other misstep or miscalculation? or is the problem that our revenue sources are not bringing in the usual because of the economy and at the same time our expenditures haven’t changed much?

      1. I think it is evident from school board presentations that the main cost drivers for the school are teacher slaries, healthcare and pensions.

        While it is up to the state legislature to change the pension system, pension costs stem directly from teachers’ contracts and their salary levels. This means if we pay more in salary, we also pay more in pension (and for a long time.)

        Healthcare costs are also driven in part by the teachers’ contract because of the low (if any) co-pay amount, amount of benefits, etc. If these factors do not change in the next contract, we will continue to pay more.

        So, yes, the teachers’ contracts are a large part of the issue and the one that is most easily dealt with by the School Board/TESD when it comes to making changes that will positively affect costs.

        The simple fact is, teachers’ salary, benefit and retirement plans as they used to be structured are no longer sustainable, regardless of what may happen with the stock market (as it applies to pension fund.)

        In the past, teachers received greater benefits/retirement to make up for a marked difference of salary vs. the private sector. This difference no longer exists, except for the fact that many teachers make more than those in the private sector on top of their enhanced benefits/retirement.

        The world has changed and now it is time for the teachers’ union to do the same.

        Please note: I have talked with many teachers individually. They tend to agree with the above. As this negotiation drags on, it is important to remember that it is now the PSEA driving the bus on negotiations (not our local teachers) and they care little about our schools or local taxpayers. The PSEA’s job is to continue ratcheting up salaries and benefits so they can carry those numbers across the state. And has been seen in several nearby districts, they will stoop to almost any level to achieve their goals. Once this is over, the PSEA will move to the next district and leave us paying the bill.

        1. Thank you…that was a very clear explanation…this seems like it is going to be a long process…hopefully it doesn’t get out of control.

  9. oops sorry… but what was written is not an uncommon approach to negotiations. It is one of several general tracks of negotiations I’ve experienced. It seems that the District is following similar practices. And I am okay with that form both ends – provided that everything is above board. What the District put out is not true. It isn’t a case of view point it is a case of flat out honesty.

    1. John,

      You mentioned that “What the District put out is not true.”.
      Could you list the falsehoods with some documentation?

  10. Keith’s link to Collective Bargaining Strategies, above, is an important reminder that we are seeing just one play in a long game.

    One interpretation of the TEEA position could be that they know the current healthcare coverage is untenable, with zero community support. Then, when they make a concession on that, we’ll be so grateful that we overlook the offsetting salary, work rule, etc costs (on top of the pension cost increase, of course).

    I am 100% behind the Board decision to stay one step removed from the negotiating table. No Board of Directors gets directly involved in contract negotiations. Our representatives need to keep personalities out of it, and act as one.

    I also expect them to do whatever they judge is necessary to keep us informed of the negotiations and understanding the issues, so that when push comes to shove we know where to stand, and where to lend our support. They have the machinery to keep ahead in the communications game, and I trust they use it, on behalf of the taxpayers that elect them and that pay the compensation of everyone that works for the district.

    1. I’m not saying that I don’t understand your point…but let me play devil’s advocate. Is it possible that the board would stay out of the process to make it easier for the hired PR firm to garner favor and belief for the school district’s end of the negotiations. That way if questioned by the public about whats happening at negotiations the school board can only respond with what was reported to them (by the admin team) and not by what they saw. Yes, sounds like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, but after all…it is politics.

    2. I agree with you, Ray. I support the school board’s decision to have representatives sit at the table – it takes the emotion out of it. The school board has said they will be involved in the entire process and I believe them. And someone else on this blog said it well – the school district is not negotiating with the teachers, they are negotiating with a PSEA rep who is looking after PSEA’s own interests. I have heard that the PSEA negotiator is not accurately representing the opinions of many of the teachers. So no one is winning now. The teachers aren’t being fairly represented by the PSEA negotiator and the school board is dealing with a PSEA rep who refuses to discuss a costly issue such as healthcare.

      1. Caroline, I have heard that too, that the teachers, some, are not in line with the PSEA. Somewhere on this board it was said that if the teachers strike, they still get paid. Is this true? Some deal if it is. So that takes the bang out of a strike, for them for sure. Is that true?

        1. By law, the secretary of education will seek court action to end a strike so students are guaranteed 180 days of instruction by June 30th. Therefore, teachers are guaranteed 180 days of pay each year even if they strike. In essence, teachers do not suffer financially if they strike.

        2. Where are you guys hearing that there are some teachers that are going against the union. Not that I don’t believe you, but it just seems weird that they would speak out against it publicly no matter what was going on.

        3. Just like some worry that the negotiations will not be genuine because no board members are at the table, likewise some teachers will talk about what they believe too. But when it comes to the end of the day, the PSEA is calling the shots. There is no one in our local that is strong enough to call off the state. The last time the district bargained with just teachers was when the then head of the union and his officers told the PSEA rep to leave and the district had two board members (no lawyer) at the table. That was about the district. After those officers retired from TESD, younger, less politically connected teachers took the role. Do not for a moment think that any teacher much less a group of them are likely to change the PSEA game plan. Want to understand it better? Go to — and read their statements about collective bargaining, and benefits and other issues. Even the wage freeze that our teachers “offered” for a deferral of their raises was based on a PSEA suggestion (read: mandate).

  11. Again — honesty? Why?
    Unless a decision is made at the table, it is not valid. Unless it is ratified, it is not binding.
    Here’s the deal:
    Teachers make X. X is presumably market driven. NO missteps there.
    But then the economy changes, and unless you can lay off the most expensive employees, or the least successful ones, you cannot alter your cost structure.
    So teachers X is now NOT market driven.
    So in addition to a paycheck, teachers get benefits. They have rarely cared or even understood the cost of these benefits, because they considered them a right. Well — those benefits costs are not controlled by dollar, but by the plan coverages.
    The cost of health care has escalated beyond imagination. We all know it.But not a single teacher feels they are better off, because those costs were 100% absorbed by taxpayers. And raises came right along with them.

    So now, the school board offers a massively reduced health care option for individuals only. That’s just a substitute for sayiing that they will pay (let’s say $10K) towards each employee’s plan. So the reaction by the teachers and the community is likely to be “Why would you expect them to accept single coverage when they have family now?”

    Do you see the perspective? The confusion? The taxpayers are not paying for benefits. The taxpayers compensate teachers. Part of the cost of compensation includes benefits. The teachers won’t discuss costs, so the way to get to a lower cost is to dramatically reduce the package offered. The teachers never want cost to be part of the benefit discussion because they it gets confused with the cost of salary increases.

    Problem: NO winners here. The teachers stand pat. They keep a wage freeze and the same benefits. Ad infinitum. The only “give” i this is the younger teachers who don’t have the big bucks benefit packages yet and haven’t hit the spot in the salary schedule where they have 20% increase bumps. And those are the ones who will be laid off if the district needs to control costs.

    SO — the only way to get this thing moving is to educate the younger teachers about what exactly the union is putting into play: THEIR JOBS.

    1. Wow…TR…you definitely made me think about this in a different way. Let me see if my simplified version actually sums it up (as you see my intelligence was questioned earlier) If it stays district vs. union, nothing may change. But if the members of the union whose jobs will be on the line speak up from within, we may see a change?

  12. I think these negotiations from the taxpayers perspective are indeed a sham. I say that because form the employer side of the table we have people that are at the table with only half a deck of cards. They can sit there and debate expenses till they are blue in the face — BUT — unlike any other labor negotiations – the representatives have no control over the revenue side. So, if they concluded that salaries and/or benefits should be raised to be competitive — they can not decide to raise prices to cover the increases in expense. As we all know — the Board refuses to address all of the revenue opportunities available to the district (EIT/PIT) — so it is like putting a size 13 foot into a size nine shoe.
    This is not the Unions fault — they come to the table and find themselves talking with several talking puppets and not having any ability to “negotiate” with folks that have the control over the purse strings.

    1. One of the most important functions of a school board is to create a comfortable working environment with sufficient compensation so as to attract and retain excellent teachers. They are, after all, the key to delivering an excellent education to TE’s students.
      Here are two question to ascertain whether the district is “competitive”. Does the district have difficulty attracting numerous qualified applicants for every open position? Does the district have trouble retaining (a high turnover rate or a negligible turnover rate) existing teachers?

  13. Why is it that in all the discussion about healthcare and the benefits teachers receive, the blame is so quickly pointed at the teachers? If you look at any contract, including the the one in TE, there are 2 sets of signatures. One set belongs to the Association Reps and the other to the school board!! It takes both sides to make a COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT. I understand the need for change and the frustration the members of the community are feeling. But don’t forget, it is not just the teachers that are at fault. The people elected to represent the school district share an equal responsbiility.

    1. Well said and true. However the Board goes to the bargaining table with one hand tied behind its back. For example: if the Board just said at the end of the contract that they would hold an open competition for jobs to hire the best teachers, they would have thousands of applicants from across the state who are highly qualified and willing to work for less than our current contract. But the board cant because the contracts say the district must hire those who have worked in the district first.

      Also the teachers have the power of the strike and the inconvenience that causes for thousands of parents. Once they strike these parents put pressure on the board to give in so the schools reopen. That puts the board at a disadvantage.

      If we want a fairly negotiated contract we as the public need to back our board and not give in to the inconvenience of a strike.

      As for other things,someday have someone enlighten you to “step increases” and you will find out why “no raise” is still a raise to the teachers union.

      1. FTW, question, if the board opens applications to all and they have to hire teachers from the district first, then offer these teachers a new reasonable contract, more reasonable to the taxpayers. If the teachers don’t accept the position, then hasn’t the board under the contract fulfilled their contractual responsibility to offer to existing teachers first, they refuse for the sake of this illustration, and then they can open up to all?

        1. ff
          ftw was making an ironical comment. it is an example of how inequitable the employer position is. Tenured teachers may not be removed without cause and with due process. think air traffic controllers…and then wipe the thought from your mind. the district can do nothing but bargain…

  14. FTW and others
    Not correct.

    For PPD to suggest that the board isn’t taking the opportunity to increase revenues and therefore are putting puppets at the table is just patently silly. If the board wanted to behave like puppets, they would put the EIT out for a referendum — it would be soundly defeated — and then the teachers would have to finally believe there is no more money in the pot.

    Yes — the board “collectively” bargains these things. But not really. The board buys labor peace. And KK is correct in that the salaries are only “not competitive” when you cannot draw applicants or when you have evidence of an exodous. Our district has certainly lost teachers to other districts, as we have gotten teachers from other districts. But never just ” a teacher” — in fact only a teacher that has a special set of skills (music director, lacrosse coach). Most districts hire the bulk of their staff in the first 5 steps. You only hire someone above that when you have a need….

    So — be very careful what you listen to. As I said earlier — these will not be negotiations. These will be talks until either the union is pushed by its own membership to settle it and save their jobs, or the district is pressured by parents who are “inconvenienced” by a strike. Remember — teachers lose not one dime when they strike. They were ruled by the courts to be salaried employees (unless of course they work extra hours….:lol) If they go out on strike, it is only to make a point and only to disrupt the educational program. NO ONE is punshed but the kids. They are ordered back to work with enough time to fill a legal school year. If they don’t settle, they stay “status quo” which means they freeze their pay (which is why the deferred raise was just that — a deferred raise. It saved the district some money, and that was nice and a good move on their part to buy some favor, but they moved to the next step after a semester deferral. ) The freeze will not bother those most senior teachers much at all, as their raises would likely be less than 2.5% anyway, and they continue to accrue pensions at that rate forever….even beyond 100%. The younger teachers willl 1) get laid off 2) not get the major step raises that come mid-way in the salary schedule and 3) will be shouted down by senior peers who tell them they have to stick together to get something done.

    So yes Squeeze — the only movement we are likely to see — and it’s very optimistic to even think it might happen — is for the younger teachers to accept that they are probably in the voting majority of the union, they can live with the amount that the plan the district is offering with (after all — it’s still insurance….just not first dollar health care!!!) , and they can keep from being laid off.

    Sigh. FTW is right — either you are all in on this one, or don’t bother to come to the table. There will be no collectively accepted outcome. And when there is an outcome, it will be who spins it best to determine whether we “won” or “lost.” Because status quo less the health care benefits would still be too expensive.

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