The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

March 27, 2014

Danville teacher union leader: Retirement program used 'as a crutch'

By Robert Stoneback
The Danville News

— DANVILLE — School district administrators could have avoided increased contributions to employee benefits by paying more during stronger economic years, according to the president of the Danville Education Association.

Dave Fortunato said the district could have contributed up to 7.5 percent to the pension and medical costs of its teachers, but instead decided to defer those costs to a later date.

“They chose not to. When it (the economy) got really bad in 2009-10, they chose to pay 4.78 percent,” Fortunato said. “It’s very clear and obvious that in the past they did not prepare for this.”

Danville teachers have been contributing about 7.5 percent of their payroll to benefits over the last 14 years, but the state allowed the school district to contribute less with the understanding that it would only defer the cost until later, Fortunato said.

He commended the board in recent years for saving up for increasing costs to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System, but he said the school board is “using that as a crutch” to justify not increasing teacher wages.

District contributions to teacher benefits were 4.76 percent in the 2008-2009 school year, 4.78 percent for 2009-2010, 5.64 percent in 2010-2011, 8.65 in 2011-2012, and 12.36 percent in 2012-2013.

Between 1999 and 2008, most of the school district’s yearly contributions to employee benefits were beneath 5 percent, to a low of 1.09 percent for the 2001-2002 school year and a high of 7.13 for the 2007-2008 school year.

School board president Allan Schappert said he was unaware of what Fortunato was referring to when he spoke of deferred contribution costs. He said he doesn’t deal in those older percentages and when they occurred and that he could only speak to what the contribution costs are now.

“It’s immaterial at this point, I can’t un-ring the bell, no one can,” he said.

The district was meeting its legal obligation with contributions, otherwise the Pennsylvania Department of Education would have stepped in, Schappert said.

He also questioned Fortunato’s comment of the district keeping contributions low when the economy started to turn bad. He said it would not have made sense to further increase the tax rate during that time.

“If that’s what he (Fortunato) is saying, my response is, rubbish,” Schappert said.

The school district’s contributions to employee benefits have been a sticking point in contract negotiations between them and the DEA. The DEA scheduled a teacher’s strike for April 17. The district and the teacher union will negotiate the day before, April 16.

Mre than 140 Danville teachers and their supporters rallied for educators prior to the 7 p.m. Danville school board meeting Tuesday.

Email comments to rstoneback@thedanvillenews.com.