New Kensington Arnold teachers rally for new contract, threaten strike vote

First-grader Mick Dombroski feels like he’s living in the movie Groundhog Day.

Time and time again, he said, the New Kensington-Arnold School District could not approve a new contract with its teachers’ union until the previous contract expired.

Most districts agree on new contracts beforehand, said Fritz Fekete, southwest region advocacy coordinator at the Pennsylvania State Education Association. New Kensington-Arnold is among the less than 5% who don’t, he said.

“It’s a shame we don’t get a fair deal before the contract expires,” Dombroski said, noting that talks start months before the contract expires. “We should be able to do it.”

Dombroski, who teaches at HD Berkey Elementary School, was among district teachers who attended a rally outside Valley High School Tuesday night before a school board meeting, hoping to raise public awareness of their plight and help the board reach an agreement to encourage.

It was 181 days Tuesday since the last contract between the district and the New Kensington-Arnold Education Association expired on August 31. The teachers continued their work.

“It’s difficult because we want to give our students the best education,” said association president Ashley Pujol, health and physical education teacher.

Gina Brestensky, a special education teacher at HD Berkey Elementary, was among 60 to 70 of the 151 union members who attended the rally, Pujol said.

“I feel like they really don’t see our value and what we’re doing to keep this place going for our kids,” Brestensky said. “People are doing everything they can to keep everything running as smoothly as possible.”

When asked what parents should know, Brestensky said: “I hope they realize that we do everything for their children. We don’t stop. All we ask is to get out what we put in.”

Sticking Point: Health Benefits

How much teachers should pay for health care services is the primary remaining unresolved issue on which Pujol says the union and the district are significantly at odds.

During the board meeting, principal Terry Schrock, chief negotiator and district spokesman, said the board wants to provide teachers with a fair salary and competitive benefits while minimizing the impact on taxpayers.

Schrock said the board is asking teachers to make health contributions that are more in line with those in other districts.

At $65 a month for individual insurance and $125 for a family, teachers in New Kensington-Arnold are the second lowest among Westmoreland County counties, he said.

Schrock said the district’s proposal would increase premiums to $125 for individual insurance and $250 for families in the first year of a five-year contract. Despite the increase, he said, teachers in three other Westmoreland districts are paying more.

District: Average Pay Increase – 3.78%

Schrock said the district has tentatively approved the association’s salary proposal, which will see annual increases averaging 3.78%, and has shown its willingness to raise the property tax rate to pay for it.

The district’s proposed budget of $40.9 million for the 2022-23 school year includes a 5% property tax increase, the highest possible under the district’s federally-imposed inflation limit. The rate could change by the time the budget is finalized in June.

Union challenges numbers

Pujol said it was unprofessional for the board to negotiate publicly and accused the board of providing false information. She said the association will consider hosting its own forum to present its case.

Pujol said the district canceled its last meeting scheduled for February 24. Another meeting is not expected before late March or early April.

Pujol asked the board to stop canceling the negotiation sessions and to return to the negotiating table.

“We were ready to hit the district in the middle,” she said.

A strike authorization vote could come soon, Pujol said.

“We’re trying not to get to that point,” she said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Contributor to the Tribune-Review. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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