By Robert J. Mellow

It's time to chart a new course to end school strikes in Pennsylvania. The old way of dealing with school labor strife has passed and a new day is upon us. Let's break the mold and change the process.

My approach, known as last-best-offer, fosters negotiation rather than confrontation, rational discussion rather than walking picket lines, and finality rather than uncertainty.

The sad fact is that we are currently well behind the national curve. We are one of only nine states that still permit teacher work stoppages.

Other states have come to the realization that teacher walkouts unnecessarily tear communities apart, cause drastic economic and childcare hardships for working families, and disrupt our children's education.

With nearly two months remaining in the school year, there have been nine teacher strikes in Pennsylvania affecting more than 24,000 children.

There are currently 98 school districts operating without teacher contracts; and an additional 102 contracts are set to expire this year.

Some of these labor impasses drag on for several years - resulting in retroactive contract awards that result in huge property-tax hikes.

With public discontent growing, I believe that we need a new law that establishes a fair and reasonable bargaining timetable while banning professional educators from going on strike.

I have recently introduced legislation (Senate Bill 20) that would end teacher strikes and bring resolution. My last-best-offer bill establishes a strict timeline that requires contract settlements before school begins.

The plan is patterned from a law that has worked successfully in Connecticut. In that state, more than 88 percent of contracts are resolved before any third-party involvement becomes necessary. Only 2 percent reach the final last-best-offer stage, where the president judge of the county Common Pleas Court ratifies one of the final offers in its totality.

My legislation would impose strict negotiation parameters and a reasonable timeline for both sides to reach an agreement through a variety of means - including a nonbinding arbitration panel. Once this process is exhausted without any agreement, both parties would submit their last best offer and an impartial Common Pleas Court judge would then ratify one of the two final offers as the final settlement plan.

I have often been asked why my bill requires the judge to select one of the two last best offers in its entirety and not cherry-pick provisions from both. This component of my plan puts teeth into the plan, nudges both sides toward the center, and helps avoid posturing and extreme negotiating positions.

It is important to note that the judge, before rendering a decision, must consider a number of factors ranging from the financial ability of the taxpaying public to comparative data from similar contracts for teachers in comparable communities.

The results: Strikes are averted, students are in school, teachers are in the classroom, and taxpayers are protected. My bill fosters settlement, rather than confrontation. It promotes accountability and responsibility and requires decision-making. It eliminates retroactive pay packages and prevents the consequential large spikes in property-tax rates.

Some detractors have sought to mislead the public by questioning the constitutionality of my bill. However, since the measure now provides final ratification power to an "elected" judge rather than an "appointed" arbitration panel, the bill is clearly constitutional. My chief counsel, legislative drafting attorneys and other in-house lawyers tasked with studying education law have all concurred on the constitutionality of my bill.

I have been a staunch and avid supporter of public education throughout my three decades in the state Senate. I value teachers and realize the positive impact they have in shaping the lives of our children. They deserve our respect and admiration. They deserve to be fairly compensated for the difficult and demanding work they do.

By doing away with strikes, my proposal honors the dignity of the teaching profession while protecting our children and community from this senseless and needless divisiveness.

Please urge your state senator and representative to support Senate Bill 20.

State Sen. Robert J. Mellow (D., Lackawanna) is the Senate Democratic leader.