Chester Upland School District teachers, who have gone three years without a new contract and five years without a raise, say that while they appreciate the district's deep financial problems, they are running out of patience.
As many as 70 Chester Upland Education Association members picketed outside a school board meeting Thursday night to demand a new deal.
"We really do hear the district when they say we don't have money, but after five years I don't know how much that answer really works," said Michele Paulick, president of the 230-member union, which includes teachers, counselors, and social workers.
The financially troubled district has been controlled by the state for more than 20 years and has struggled with huge charter school enrollments that it must pay for. Last year, the district won a reduction in its payments in a court-approved negotiated settlement, but it still struggles with a large structural deficit.
State receiver Peter Barsz did not return a call for comment.
Paulick pointed out that other school systems in financial straits, such as York City School District, have managed to reach deals with teachers.
"We want to be treated like every other public school employee in the area. We want a fair contract," she said, noting that negotiations have stepped up since September.
The average teacher salary was $75,000, fifth-highest among the 10 districts in Delaware County, in 2013-14, according to union officials. They say those other districts have since received raises.
Paulick said that teachers are buying their own supplies and that some teachers who have worked in the district for more than 20 years are not yet at the top of the 13-step salary scale because salaries have been frozen so often.
The district has offered increases that would move people up a step or two, but teachers would also be required to pay for a portion of their health care, which they currently do not do. Even with a pay hike, "we're still losing money," Paulick said.
As district officials, she blamed Harrisburg for underfunding the school system, where more than half of the students who live in the district attend charter schools.
"I don't think our teachers are unrealistic in what they want," she said, "but when you look at the state of the district's finances, you say, 'I don't know.' "