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Stalemate drags on in Neshaminy teacher talks

In January 2008, when Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were notching wins in the Iowa caucuses, teachers and school officials began talks on a new labor agreement in Bucks County's Neshaminy School District.

In January 2008, when Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee were notching wins in the Iowa caucuses, teachers and school officials began talks on a new labor agreement in Bucks County's Neshaminy School District.

Since then there have been 29 bargaining sessions, with little to show for them.

The talking - and finger-pointing - continues, making this the longest unresolved teachers' contract currently in Pennsylvania.

The stalemate is over salary and health-care disputes that are common in recession-racked workplaces.

Each side seems to be on a different planet when describing the talks. The acrimony has been boosted by many he-said-she-said exchanges over topics such as which side was dragging its feet on setting meeting dates.

Students and their parents, meanwhile, are caught in the middle, often torn between their high regard for teachers and their desire for a settlement that would ease the district's financial problems and end the acrimony.

Parents interviewed last week before an evening concert at Neshaminy High School, in Middletown Township, were divided about which side should give ground.

David Nelson said teachers had to accept economic realities. "It seems a little crazy that this has dragged on for as long as it has," he said. "There is only so much money that is there. You can't get blood from a stone."

Marybeth States, the grandmother of a high school student, said the teachers "work hard for their money, and they deserve what they get. The board has to negotiate here."

The largely residential district has 13 schools with 9,298 students from communities that span an economic range from working-class Levittown to newer upscale subdivisions. It faces a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall next year, on par with those in other area districts, and says it might have to lay off as many as 22 teachers and raise taxes to help close the gap.

The contract dispute involves wages, health-care costs, and other benefits the district says it can no longer afford. The teachers are the only ones in Bucks County, and perhaps in the region, who don't pay any share of health-care premiums. Even after two years of a wage freeze, last fall their average salary of $77,165 was 15th highest in the state.

The board has proposed a salary increase averaging 1 percent; the teachers want triple that, including retroactive pay.

The union's leaders say the board is talking about economic issues to divert attention from a long list of proposed contract changes that would make working conditions more difficult.

The teachers, working under the terms of the old contract, which expired July 1, 2008, have gone without a raise for three years. The district has had to keep paying out money for health care and other benefits, which it says are too costly.

A low point in the dispute was a contentious months-long period last year when teachers skipped back-to-school nights, evening student celebrations, and graduation ceremonies. Some didn't put up classroom bulletin boards or grade homework outside school hours, as part of what teachers called "work to contract."

Union president Louise Boyd said in an interview last week that the intent was to combat "teacher bashing," showing the board and community how many hours teachers work beyond those stipulated in their contract and how much of their own time they give.

School Board President Ritchie Webb said the strategy had backfired. "The community sees themselves as being held hostage," he said. "They see their children being used as pawns."

Each side says it is waiting for the other to take the first step toward breaking the contract impasse.

Webb said it was all about needing to switch away from the current "Cadillac" health and prescription plans, getting teachers to pay a share of medical costs, settling on salaries the district can afford, and cutting out other expensive practices, such as paying for retiree medical benefits.

"It comes down to: We can't afford it. Period," Webb said. "Do you see a new Mercedes sitting in my driveway? I'd like to have one, but there's not, and the reason is I can't afford it, and no one will pay for it."

Boyd, a biology teacher at the high school, said the union would agree to have teachers share health-care costs as part of a total package they could accept.

But every time it has informally signaled its willingness, she said, the board has backed away and pushed a broader set of demands that include a longer school year, changes in the grievance procedure, and mandatory drug testing. As the union has "inched in" toward common ground, Boyd said, the school board has "moved away."

At the high school concert, several parents said they thought most teachers had done very well by their children. "I think they're terrific," said Kathleen Conlan, the mother of two high school students. She said the contract dispute had little effect on her children.

Others said there continued to be an impact.

Lisa Reiser, who has four children in the district, said, "I love my children's teachers." But one child, she said, is being told to do her homework in class, one of the things many teachers did during the work-to-contract period last year. "How is that a really great learning experience, if you're only doing what the minimum is?"

Past experience gives little cause for optimism about a settlement, but both sides said they hoped for progress soon.

The school board recently announced that it was withdrawing its proposal. Webb said he was forming a community task force to get new input and would be back to bargaining in June. "I'm optimistic that we will get this done," he said.

Boyd said she hoped the board would "come back with a realistic offer with which we can have good-faith negotiations."

Don't hold your breath, board member William O'Connor said.

The level of the trust between the sides is below zero, he said. "Neither side seems to agree on what happened in a meeting that ended an hour earlier."