Taxpayer seeks tactic for Dallas School Board to gain advantage on teachers

By Eileen Godin - egodin@timesleader.com
Challenger in the race for Luzerne County District Attorney Vito DeLuca participates in a debate with incumbent Stefanie Salavantis at Buckingham Performing Arts Center on the school campus of Wyoming Seminary in Kingston on Thursday. (Pete G. Wilcox|Times Leader) -

DALLAS TWP. — Clarke Bittner wanted to know why if the Dallas School District does not have a contract with its teachers is their health care paid when they go on strike.

Bittner asked the question at Monday’s school board meeting.

He was fishing for a way the district could gain some leverage on the Dallas Education Association in ongoing contract negotiations, which have stalled on issues of salary, health care, early retirement and pensions.

“What angers me is that their health care was paid 100 percent over the past two years,” the Dallas School District taxpayer said. “The teachers are putting pressure on you, and they make it hard on parents.

“Why should they settle?”

School board solicitor Vito DeLuca said the district is required by law to continue benefits throughout the ongoing negotiations in what is called the “status quo period.”

The district did withhold teachers’ salaries for seven unworked contractual days during the 2016-17 school year and recouped nearly $500,000 in wages, health care and pensions.

The inability for teachers to complete their obligation was due to a combination of a 22-day strike in November 2016 and snow days, DeLuca said.

The union filed a grievance with the board on the pay withholding, which was denied at the July 2017 school board meeting.

The Dallas Education Association has worked without a contract since August 2015.

The union went on a seven-day strike in September 2017 and has another strike notice filed for Monday, Jan. 22.

According to state law, teacher unions can strike twice in a school year as long as the first strike ends in time to complete 180 school days by June 15. The second strike must end in time to complete 180 days by June 30.

The exchange of contract proposals and negotiations over a three-year period has not resulted in a resolution.

“The reality is (the Dallas Education Association) has not come close to an offer the district can afford,” DeLuca said. “The board refuses to raise taxes above the index to fund a (union) offer.”

The Act 1 Index, implemented in 2006, limits the amount a school district can raise taxes without taxpayer approval.

The Dallas School District’s Act 1 Index is three percent.

On Monday, the Dallas School Board unanimously agreed not to exceed the Act 1 tax index for the 2018-19 budget.

The district’s preliminary budget proposal will not be prepared and presented until June, but the news pleased Bittner.

“I have not heard one person objecting to the stance you have taken with respect to negotiation with these teachers,” Bittner said. “Every person I’ve talked to say these teachers are out of line. They are asking for too much.”

In other news…

• Zubeen Saeed, president and chief executive officer of Building Blocks Learning Center with a location in Dallas, gave an update on the status of the child care partnership with the district.

In November, the Dallas Post reported the district and Building Blocks Learning Center would offer before and after care for elementary-aged students at both Dallas and Wycallis elementary schools.

The partnership will create a convenience for families as well as a revenue stream for the district.

On Feb. 5, the program will roll out first at Wycallis Elementary School for children currently enrolled in Building Blocks Learning Center in Dallas, Saeed said.

On March 5, Building Blocks will accept new enrollments, she said.

“In September, we will open the program to both schools,” Saeed said.

Parents or caregivers who register for the program will be allowed to drop off their children at their school starting at 6:30 a.m. for morning programs, offered by certified Building Blocks teachers.

Students will be dismissed directly to their homerooms at the start of the school day.

If the start of school is delayed due to snow, the before-care program will still start at 6:30 a.m., Saeed said in an interview in November.

The after-school program will run from school dismissal to 6 p.m., she said. Childcare services will not be affected if the school closes early due to a snowstorm, Saeed said.

Even holiday vacation or a teachers’ strike should not prevent child care services from operating out of the schools.

Both morning and after-school programs will feature a snack and structure focused on STEAM, an acronym for Science, Technology, English, Art and Math.

Monday would focus on Science activities; Tuesday, technology; Wednesday, English; Thursday, art; and Friday, math., Saeed said.

The partnership will allow Building Blocks’ certified teachers the use of school resources such as a computer lab and gym for school-age programs.

Saeed estimates the child care program will have the capacity to accommodate 50 to 75 children per school when the plan is fully operational.

The district is also looking to develop a partnership with Head Start to eventually develop a pre-kindergarten program.

Lynn Biga, the executive director at Head Start, provided a brief overview of a potential pre-kindergarten program, which would be housed in Wycallis Elementary School.

Superintendent Thomas Duffy said the district has considered rolling out a pre-k program for a while.

• Plans to replace Dallas Elementary School with a two-story intermediate school will result in a realignment of grades, which may allow room for a pre-k program, he said.

The proposed Dallas Intermediate School will house third through fifth grades. Wycallis Elementary School will accommodate kindergarten, first and second grades.

The Dallas Intermediate School is planned to be constructed next to Wycallis Elementary School, off Conyngham Avenue in Dallas Township.

The new school will replace the 46-year-old, pre-fabricated Dallas Elementary School, which has a growing list of structural problems that include a leaking roof, inefficient heating and air conditioning systems and frequent plumbing issues.

The new school is projected to cost just under $23 million. The district is eligible to receive over $2 million through the Commonwealth’s Planning and Construction Workbook, which contains procedures school districts can help plan new school construction.

• Duffy announced the district made a change to the way underfunded student lunch accounts are handled.

Under the recently passed Act 55, the district can no longer inform students about lunch account funding, Duffy said. Correspondence about lunch account balances must be directed to the student’s parents or caregivers, he said.

The district will send letters to families about balances owed on lunch accounts.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 12 in the administration building.

Challenger in the race for Luzerne County District Attorney Vito DeLuca participates in a debate with incumbent Stefanie Salavantis at Buckingham Performing Arts Center on the school campus of Wyoming Seminary in Kingston on Thursday. (Pete G. Wilcox|Times Leader)
https://www.mydallaspost.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/web1_DeLuca-1.jpgChallenger in the race for Luzerne County District Attorney Vito DeLuca participates in a debate with incumbent Stefanie Salavantis at Buckingham Performing Arts Center on the school campus of Wyoming Seminary in Kingston on Thursday. (Pete G. Wilcox|Times Leader)
Solicitor says board must honor previous contract

By Eileen Godin

egodin@timesleader.com

Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews

Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews