By Robert Stoneback
The Daily Item
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.
Members of the Danville Education Association split up into four groups, to protest what they saw 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.
There were about 15 to 20 teachers in each group at any given time throughout the day, 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 them. The reason, McDade said, is because people are learning that what the teachers are asking for “is significantly less than what the state-appointed neutral fact-finder recommended.”
The increases asked for by the DEA have regularly come in lower than those suggested in a report last spring by a state-appointed fact-finder, according to McDade and DEA president Dave Fortunato. The school district rejected the fact-finder’s report as financially unfeasible.
DEA members were also handing out pamphlets printed with statistics from the fact-finder’s report and charts comparing neighboring school district test scores and salary ranges.
The DEA contends that Danville teaches are paid less on average than teachers in nearby districts even though Danville’s test scores are generally higher.
Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, visited each of the teacher groups, starting with the picketers outside the Danville Primary School at around 11 a.m. The teachers at the Danville 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 its 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 number one 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 Fortunato.
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.
Danville’s strike has only been the fourth such strike in Pennsylvania since 2010, said Paul Shemansky, of the PSEA. “This is rare.”
The DEA is renting space at Mahoning Township’s East End Fire Company to use as its 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 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 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday, 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.
According to Superintendent Cheryl Latorre, the teachers on strike will continue to be paid for days they have worked up until the day of the strike. As of Wednesday, the last day before the strike, the teachers had worked a total of 152 days. The teachers will continue to receive pay for those days of work over their upcoming payment periods. Teachers have 26 payment periods over the course of the year with their yearly salary spread across those pay installments, Latorre said.