The New Staff Contract Conflict

Julia Geftman, Around LMSD editor

Although students may not have been tuned into school over summer vacation, the Lower Merion School District administrators and teachers definitely were. This past June marked the end of the five-year staff contract that began in the school year of 2005 to 2006. For the time remaining after the expiration date, the staff of LMSD was working under no formal agreement. With the unpromising economy that our nation has been facing causing the teachers to have new desires in their contracts, it was a perfect time for this contract to be created. However, formulating this agreement was much easier said than done due to conflicting opinions between the LMSD administrators and the Lower Merion Education Association (LMEA).

Specifically, Mr. Santa Maria, a teacher at Harriton was the man representing the members of LMEA. However, LMEA doesn’t just consist of the teachers in the district. The association is also made up of around-the-school staff including technology staff, janitors, secretaries, office staff and much more. Throughout all of those staff were 1,320 employed people working under no contract. After hearing from Mr. Santa Maria, a deeper understanding of the contract and its issues, implications, and solutions was explained. He described the particular challenges with the contract by stating, “The economy is in real bad shape right now. So you are going to the employer and asking for a raise and for better benefits and better working conditions and there is not a lot of that that is being granted to employees out there at this time.”

Likewise, our school district’s superintendent, Mr. McGinley answered similar questions and explained that, “The greatest challenge that we faced with this contract was the current economic situation in the nation and her in Lower Merion.  These past two years we have seen an erosion of our tax base and that has meant a decline in revenue for the school district.  Our goal going in to negotiations was to have a contract by the start of school that would benefit the future of our schools.”

With the economy taking a toll on the contract, the district was also presented with the issue of catering to all of the different employees in the district. Within the group of 1,320 employees, about half of them are teachers. However, the other half are support professionals which work in different areas within the district. Mr. Santa Maria explained this stating, “The challenge there is to bargain a contract that is fair to all [of the support professionals] and doesn’t leave any of the groups behind.”

Though the teachers currently have a settled contract for the next two years, people of the township were concerned with the implications of this problem. In early August with just a month left before the schools were set to open, there was still no confirmed contract. Administrators, teachers, and people of the district were in fear that a strike was going to occur and that the new school year would have to be delayed. However despite this fright, both the head administators and the staff of LMEA were luckily optimistic about the situation and worked hard to get a deal approved.

Regarding the new contract that was approved by the Board of Direction just a few weeks ago, The Main Line Times reports that, “for the first time Lower Merion teachers and other district employees who fall under the collective bargaining agreement with the school district will have to pay into their own health insurance.” This will implicate about $2 million dollars for the school district for the duration of this contract. However, teachers did get a slight raise, as they had asked which makes the new contract to sound quite compromising for both parties.

However, two years isn’t as long as it may seem, and both the administrators and LMEA agree that they must think ahead for the future. Mr. Santa Maria clarified that “The law dictates that in January of the year that the contract expires, we have to begin forewarning. So our contract expires July 1st of 2012, and so January of 2012, a year from this January, we have to start bargaining. That leaves me fourteen months to do the homework that I need to do with my members and with studying what’s going on out there to get ready for formal negotiations.”

Although both sides wish that there had been a longer contract, Dr. McGinley gave a positive outlook on where the situation is left right now. “We have two years to benefit from the changes that we have agreed upon in the new contract.  That includes new opportunities for teachers and students to engage in on-line teaching and learning and a much better structure for teacher collaboration.  This contract, although short in duration is a good foundation for the next contract.”

Nonetheless, students may wonder where this leaves them. Although this contract’s main focus is on the staff, there is an advantageous side for students and their classes. Mr. Santa Maria describes this advantage saying that, “The new contract has language that will allow teachers to teach their courses online, to extend their course online. So a course that a Harriton student is taking now only in the classroom, part of that course, or maybe even that entire course eventually can be offered online now.” Similarly, Dr. McGinley specified, “This new language will allow us to be more creative in the use of technology and make better use of learning time.  I expect that some of those new opportunities will be in next year’s high school course catalog.”

Both sides of this issue seem content with the current contract and seem pleased to know that there is a solution for the next two years. Additionally, as always,  the employees of the Lower Merion School District can continue to stick with their priority of helping the students of the district succeed as much as possible. Though the solution only covers a short period of time, the Lower Merion Education Association and the administrators are remaining optimistic that they will come to an agreement once this contract expires in 2012.