For the moment, the Saucon Valley teachers' strike is over, the union (the SVEA) having agreed to non-binding arbitration, a suggestion the school board urged on it before the strike began.This is a very sad day for organized labor in the Valley. Rarely has a union handled a negotiation as badly as the SVEA has handled this one. The success of a negotiation with a public entity, such as a school board, depends upon persuading the public of the justice of the union's position. The attempts by the union to do that were pathetic. Whereas the school board organized three public sessions to explain its views and answer questions, the teachers held none. Whereas Ralph Puerta, the board president, published in this paper and The Valley Voice an extensive discussion of the history of the negotiations, the board's positions and the justification for those positions, the union did nothing of the kind. Instead, it used its Web site to snipe at alleged misstatements by the board, some of them quite nonsensical. For example, it claimed that Puerta was not in the room when the teachers walked out of negotiations last Thursday because, it said, the board had refused to negotiate. The fact is that the meeting was handled by a state mediator who had the parties in separate rooms.
Another example: on the day my column criticizing the teachers' union was published last week, I stopped to pick up a flyer from a union member on Main Street near Walnut Street. The teacher who handed it to me said, "Thank you, sir, for wanting to learn the teachers' side." When I read the flyer in the Giant parking lot, it made only two points. The first said that in four years, the Easton Area School District would have a higher starting salary than Saucon. The second, was that teachers with 14 or more years in the district with certain educational levels would be among the lowest paid in Northampton County. The notion that the union could rely on these two points to persuade the public of the justice of its course strikes me as mind-boggling.
According to The Express Times , union president-elect Vivian Demko wrote a letter to the district on Tuesday in which she said:" By taking this action, the Association hopes to send a clear message that its members are returning to the classroom because that's where they want to be and because that's in the best interest of the students of the Saucon Valley School District. Even so, the sad reality of returning to the classroom without a signed contract means that the distractions and angst that come with an unsettled contract will continue."
Obviously, if the SVEA had the best interest of the students in mind, there would have been no strike. Hiding behind that mask merely irritates an angry public. It is a legitimate thing for a union to negotiate for better pay and benefits for its members. Indeed, had they tried they might have had a case to make. It is quite another to pretend that paying more is for the benefit of the employer, or, as in this case, the students.
Moreover, the notion that teachers will be negatively affected by returning to the classrooms without a contract does a great disservice to both the talent and professionalism of our teachers. Teachers, like doctors, are expected to do their best, no matter what they are being paid. I am certain that they will. That doesn't mean that negotiations should cease. Teachers should have a contract which takes into account their needs and the ability of the community to pay. The board does have some room to move but probably not in the salary area.
The SVEA's Web site has made much of the notion that the board has reserves on hand of $3.7 million, and therefore could pay substantial salary increases without raising new taxes. Without going into an extended analysis of this reserve, suffice it to say that a large part of it is required by state law and that some reserve is clearly prudent in view of rising costs expected to be incurred by the district. Besides, merely because there is a reserve does not mean that it should be spent on salaries.
Without question, taxes are high in the Saucon Valley School District. I served for some time on a school board that was largely responsible for that. I make no apology. We raised taxes because previous boards had allowed the schools to physically degenerate, the educational system to crumble and, yes, the teacher pay levels to be so low that the district had trouble attracting really good teachers. When those taxes were raised, the economy was in much better shape than it is today and the housing market in our district was cockeyed wonderful.
Happily, our efforts were successful and the district got considerable bang for its bucks. We now have a superb new campus which serves efficiently as a fine place to learn. Our district does very well in educating our children, thanks in part to the tools supplied by our board, and, of course, thanks to our excellent teachers. The SVEA Web site was quite right in saying that the excellence of our educational system has made Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township a mecca for parents.
However, it is obvious that the community ability to pay further tax increases is extremely limited. Times, to say the least, have changed. When people are lucky to have jobs, never mind salary increases, asking taxpayers to support raises of the kind the SVEA asked for is just preposterous.
The tragedy is that the union leadership has failed to recognize the economic facts of our time. Their demands have simply outraged the public. Support for them at the board's information meetings was somewhere between zero and nil. Online, comments about the teachers have been extremely hostile. The union may have done real damage to the cause of paying teachers what they are really worth. The old bugaboos about working only 10 months and teacher tenure are widely-circulated and seldom rebutted.
I hope the teachers will forgive this Dutch Uncle when I suggest that the membership should replace the present leadership with people who are both more realistic and have better communication skills. Bad generals must be removed before they destroy the army.
Sandy Lance died last Sunday at the early age of 57. She was a truly wonderful person. My wife Susan and I knew Sandy not so much as a teacher at Saucon Valley, although we were aware that she was terrific at that, but as the mother of our son's best friend. While Sandy sometimes came to parties we gave, she always came to the kids' parties which happened twice a year at our house. (The "kids" are now around 30.) She enjoyed, and indeed shared, the camaraderie of young people. Better still, they enjoyed her. She never seemed to judge them; merely, to love them all. Susan and I, along with her colleagues, her friends, her daughter Katie, her son Josh, and their spouses will miss her terribly. So will all of the kids.
Arthur Joel Katz is a resident of Lower Saucon Township. His column appears in The Saucon News on a weekly basis.