Judge pleads with Dallas School District, union to return to negotiations

By Patrick Kernan - pkernan@timesleader.com
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WILKES-BARRE — Emotions ran high at a hearing Thursday afternoon after the Dallas Education Association requested to have the school district held in contempt for violating an order for court directed negotiations.

But other than a county judge making pleas for both parties to work with him, the two sides seem just as far apart as ever.

The hearing was held before Luzerne County Judge William H. Amesbury. The judge previously ordered the Dallas Area School District and the teachers’ union to follow a schedule of court ordered negotiations in the hopes of bringing the multi-year contract dispute to a close.

After only a week of following the order, the district filed an appeal in commonwealth court, with district solicitor Vito DeLuca saying the order was “burdensome” for the school district to follow, as it required five of the district’s nine school board members to be at each negotiation session.

Last week, the union filed requesting that the district be held in contempt of court for violating the order, and this week filed in commonwealth court a motion to quash the appeal.

While Thursday’s hearing was ostensibly to discuss the merits of the union’s argument for holding the district in contempt, the hearing quickly became more similar to a conference, as DeLuca described it afterword.

Amesbury did not explicitly rule on the union’s request for the district to be held in contempt, seemingly suggesting that he would rather wait to rule until after the appellate court makes a ruling on the appeal, but he did say he does not agree with the district’s appeal.

In Amesbury’s opinion, he expects the appellate court to determine that his original order was interlocutory — which would essentially mean that the district would not be legally allowed to appeal the order.

If that happens, Amesbury said the district and the union would be back before him in court anyway.

Until then, Amesbury was practically begging the two sides to try to get something done.

“Until we get together, we can’t move forward,” he said. “I’m making a plea to both sides, to pull this all together, to get back to the table and pull this forward.”

Amesbury is asking — but notably is not ordering — DeLuca and union attorney Jeffrey Husisian to attempt to come to some sort of agreement between Thursday evening and Friday afternoon regarding possible changes that could be made to the original order that would make it more amenable to the district and still agreeable to the union. Then, he asked the parties submit a letter to him on Friday.

“I’ll be here until 4 o’clock, 4 o’clock is fine,” Amesbury said regarding when he was looking for the letter. “It’s only Friday.”

Then, Amesbury said he’s hoping the parties can return to negotiations by the weekend.

After the hearing, though, an agreement seemed unlikely, as DeLuca and Husisian attempted to speak after the hearing. Mark McDade, the union’s chief negotiator, seemed to angrily interrupt the attorneys, with DeLuca telling reporters afterward that McDade had said the conversation was over.

DeLuca said that he’s looking for the order to become more proportionally equal. He said since he’s required to get roughly 70 percent of his school board at negotiations, the union should be required to get the same percentage of teachers there — working out to 121 teachers.

Husisian balked at that, though.

“He knows it’s impossible to get 121 employees to cancel their summer vacations,” he said. “He knows that’s a nonstarter.”

Husisian said that case law suggests that, once a party agrees to an order, they can’t then appeal it.

“It’s like, in a custody hearing, if the father agrees to pay $1,000 in child support and then realizes it’s too much, he has to ask the judge to modify it, not just stop paying,” he said. “That’s what the district is doing.”

Both parties indicated they would be attempting to reach out to counsel for the opposing side Thursday evening in order to suss out the specifics of their letters they’d be sending to Amesbury. Husissian and McDade said they would be submitting their letter in the morning, likely directly to the judge and not as a filing in county court.

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By Patrick Kernan

pkernan@timesleader.com

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan

Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan