Thursday, October 25, 2007

Report From the Line. Part 4

Almost two weeks have passed since the strike began, and while discussion is heating up in the community, negotiations have completely stopped. Personally I would like to see both sides sitting down across from each other 24-7, but I realize that most of the major players have full-time jobs and families to support. Despite claims that they would like to see teachers back in the classrooms, school board members don't seem to display the type of imminence that one might expect. Perhaps that is because the politics of this particular conflict extend past the local level. Is it a coincidence that the local state representative initiated a proposal to ban school strikes the very day this one started? Some parents have consistently accused the teachers of "holding the students hostage"... I wonder if they ever considered that the board is trying to make a larger political point.

I do know for a fact that other districts throughout Pennsylvania are watching this situation closely. Negotiations in M.'s district were reported to be progressing quickly until my own school's strike began. Board members from the two areas have reportedly consulted with each other, and now the talks have stalled in both places. The local news media is alert to the fact that there could be widespread ramifications based upon what happens as the weeks pass by. No one wants to go through the type of upheaval that a school strike causes, with the exception of those wanting to push a broader political perspective. Parents do not want to make alternative arrangements for daycare for their children. Kids enjoy the break at first, but quickly tire of the lack of structure. Meanwhile every teacher I know laments the fact that they are trading their vacation days for shifts walking on the picket lines. But in a district as conservative as the one I teach in, tax dollars are always dispensed grudgingly.

The current news is that a local radio station has decided to hold a town hall meeting to help resolve the issue. I actually believe that these folks would like to contribute to a solution. The problem is that one of the morning commentators has continually stoked resentments by staking out a rabidly anti-teacher position. It's going to be hard for union leaders to trust that promises of a "fair and balanced" (a phrase with extremely negative associations, by the way) forum will be honored. In the defense of the station, the moderator has attempted to take a middle-of-the-road position on the issues. Meanwhile the school board's members have not agreed to participate. They would like their divisive lead negotiator to represent their side. In fact, when asked by a district parent whether or not he would appear at the event, the school board president replied that he would not do so because he didn't feel qualified to represent the board's position. If not him, then who?

Another notable item was the release of an e-mail communication between a board member and the administration. In this missive, the extremely recalcitrant board member (Mr. A.) referred to district teachers as "incompetent" and "deadwood", and suggested that he would never want his children to be around such staff. Incidentally this concern has never presented a real problem, considering Mr. A. sends his kids to private schools, instead of the public institution he pretends to represent. He further called for the board to cast "crumbs" to the most senior teachers in the district, who under the board's "last, best proposal" would receive what amounts to a decrease in standard of living, rather than a raise. This point has been a major stumbling block throughout contract negotiations. Thankfully the letter and its public reception has caused Mr. A. to remove his name from the upcoming ballot for the November elections. However he remains completely unapologetic, and stands by the sentiment expressed in the document.

One can only hope there is movement toward reconciliation soon. The last proposal was extended by the union side in August, and there has not been a change from the Board's stance since then. Negotiation requires each side to make counter-proposals aimed at eventual compromise. The union has stated repeatedly that they will be willing to change their offer, but it won't negotiate against itself. Unless the board decides to reconsider its immobility, this strike will certainly continue until we are mandated by the state to return to school.

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