Coatesville teachers reject fact finding report

Talks to continue, after health care, work rules prevent deal

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

CALN — Close, but no cigar.

While the Coatesville Area School District Board of Education moved quickly to approve a fact finder’s report Tuesday night to resolve a long-standing contract dispute with its teachers, the district’s teachers — who had requested the report — while saying they largely agreed with the report, rejected it on the basis of what it termed was some “vague and unclear” language in the proposed settlement.

Although the teachers — among the lowest paid in Chester County – got much of what they were looking for in terms of salary, they were unhappy with open questions on health care costs and work rules, saying the terms were an effort by fact-finder Ralph H. Colflesh, Jr. to get the two sides back to the negotiating table.

The rejection by the teachers set into motion a process which led to the public release of the findings — Wednesday — as well as a new window for both sides to accept or reject the report, not less than five days nor more than 10 after it is published.

“The Coatesville Area Teacher’s Association (CATA) agrees with most of the Fact Finder’s recommendations, but several key pieces are vague and unclear,” said CATA President Audra Ritter in a statement. “CATA believes these broad areas were done intentionally by the Fact Finder to draw both sides back to the bargaining table to settle a fair and competitive contract.  Our contract expired August 30, 2016.”

The district, through a statement by Board of Education President Dean Snyder, expressed disappointment that the teachers rejected the proposal.

“We believe that the recommendations, while more costly than what the board would like, give a significant boost to the ability of the district to better serve our students,” Snyder said in a statement.  “It is the recommendation to allow the district to control the school day in accordance with proposal we submitted, and the attendant cost reductions that would occur, that have resulted in the school board accepting the fact-finder’s report at this time.”

The district argued that teachers were more concerned with the work rules — and who controlled the work day.

“It is the district’s understanding that a major reason for the union’s rejection of the fact-finder’s recommendations was the recommendation to give the school district control of the work day, though it preserves inviolate planning time and lunch,” said the district’s chief negotiator, Michael Levin, in a statement.  “This is a major part of the school district’s efforts to improve student achievement.”

Ritter said that the health care plan was key, although admitting that there were concerns on the work rules, as well.

“CATA voted almost unanimously (456 No to 12 Yes) against the Fact Finder’s report due to a lack of specific information regarding costs associated with the prescription drug plan, out-of-pocket maximums and other components related to health benefits,” she said. “We also have serious concerns regarding the proposed language on the teacher work day.”

Ritter elaborated on the teachers’ concerns relating to work rules:

“The current language regarding the teacher work day takes away necessary planning time,” she said. “This is time to collaborate with colleagues and, most importantly, time to meet the specific needs of our students.  The language restricts teacher’s flexibility to meet directly with students on an as-needed-basis or time to develop differentiated lessons that uniquely support all learners. 

The district attempted to offer some clarification of the issues in dispute by offering a “Memorandum of Understanding” — but the document was not widely circulated until after the teachers took their initial vote, so it remains unclear whether it might have impacted the teachers’ vote.

But — based on dueling statements — the two sides seem to disagree about meeting and further negotiations.

“We have requested to meet with the School Board and our Superintendent to create specific language that finalizes these remaining issues, but they have ignored our requests to negotiate,” Ritter said in a statement issued Wednesday. “We hope that the Board will come back to the table so we can use the Fact Finder’s recommendations as a path forward.  The Board’s time and energy would be better spent utilizing the Fact Finder’s report to work with CATA to find a fair compromise and end this year and half-long standoff.”

But the district issued a statement Wednesday saying: “Members of the School Board Negotiating Committee and CATA met again on April 12 to attempt to bring clarity to the fact-finder’s recommendation in an effort to have both sides accept the report.  Constructive dialogue was exchanged and the school district intends to submit another proposed Memorandum of Understanding,” and offered a Web link to a proposed Memorandum of Understanding.

Both sides stressed that it would be good for the district to put this issue to rest and be able to focus on the other challenges it faces.

“What a great gift it would be to our students and taxpayers if we can iron out an agreement so that we can focus on our educational mission and put contract talks behind us,” Snyder said.

If the terms of the proposed settlement wasn’t entirely clear, Colflesh had some harsh words for previous school administrations’ obvious mismanagement of the district, as well as for poor state funding — especially in terms of of special education — and the impact of charter schools and pension costs on the district’s finances. He did note that recent interventions by the current administration had stabilized the district’s finances — which had been running at a deficit until the 2013-14 school year after being in the red for six straight years.

The report also lambasted previous administrations for a near total to maintain the district’s buildings: “to make matters worse, due to what can only kindly be called ‘mismanagement,’ the District’s physical plant is (in) sore need of repairs after years of negligence and no oversight.’ ”

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