DANVILLE – It started like any other school day during the year, with teachers up early and arriving at school at 7:30 in the morning.
The difference this time was that these teachers were on strike, picketing in front of Danville’s four schools.
Members of the Danville Education Association split up into four groups to protest what they see as unfair contract negotiations with the school district. The groups picketed on public property near each of the four district schools: Danville Primary, Liberty Valley Intermediate, Danville Middle and Danville High schools.
There will be about 15 to 20 teachers in each group at any given time throughout the day Thursday, according to Mark McDade, labor representative for the DEA and its 187 members. The teachers will picket in three shifts during the day, with each shift lasting about three hours. Some of the shifts will overlap with each other, but he expected the teachers to be out until about 5 p.m.
“We’ve had a lot of support,” McDade said, adding that about 90 percent of passing motorists have honked in favor of teachers. The reason, McDade said, is because people are learning more about the teachers’ stance and the facts behind it.
Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, visited each of the groups this morning, starting with the picketers outside the Danville Primary School at 11 a.m. The teachers at the primary school were marching up and down along State Hospital Drive, in front of Episcopal Cemetery.
“What you’re doing, you have to do” even though it’s unfortunate, he said. Crossey put much of the fault on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who proposed a $1.3 billion cut to public education funding six weeks into his first term. “We need to teach the politicians in Harrisburg that public education should be our No. 1 investment,” he said.
“Public education has made this country great,” continued Crossey, who drove from his Harrisburg office to be at the strike. “What you do in the classroom every single day matters.”
The PSEA “will stand with you,” he said, adding that he has been friends for years with DEA president Dave Fortunato.
Danville’s strike has only been the fourth such strike in Pennsylvania since 2010, said Paul Shemansky, of the PSEA. “This is rare,” he said.
The DEA is renting space at Mahoning Township’s East End Fire Company to use as their strike headquarters, McDade said.
McDade said the strike would last for as long as the Pennsylvania Department of Education would allow, which he estimated to be about five school days. The state requires districts to have 180 days of instruction completed by June 15. The second official day of the strike will be Tuesday due to the Easter break.
The teachers have not had a contract since the end of June, 2012.
“Our intention is to stay out on strike until PDE orders us back. The district has made no initiative to contact us” with regard to further negotiations, McDade said.
The previous negotiating session, which lasted from 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday evening, ended with no contract and no word from the board as to when negotiations would continue, McDade said.
“We are always open to negotiation,” he said.
In March, the school board publicly revealed a contract offer it had made to the DEA back in February. This offer, which had been rejected by the DEA, included approximately $832,000 to be divided among the wages of the DEA’s members. The combined wages and benefits increase to be divided among the DEA’s members was $3.345 million. School board records show that this would have been an 8.26 percent increase to teacher wages and a 23.72 percent increase to combined wages and benefits packages.
The DEA filed unfair labor charges against the district for publicly revealing that information, but the state labor board dismissed those charges last week.
The DEA has regularly pointed to a state fact-finder’s report from last spring which recommended a series of salary raises for the teachers based on financial information provided by the district. The DEA has regularly asked for salary increases that came in lower than the fact-finder’s report, Fortunato said.
The school district had rejected the fact-finder’s report as financially unfeasible.
In a conversation with McDade, Crossey said it was “ridiculous” that the district would not accept the teacher’s offer when it was lower than the fact-finder’s report.