Paraprofessionals in Bethel Park School District have been working without a contract for nearly three years and it appears the district and the union representing those employees are not particularly close to reaching a new agreement.
The school board and the union both rejected a state fact-finder’s nonbinding report. The school board unanimously rejected it at the regular meeting May 28 and again in a special meeting June 5.
The district’s contract with the Paraprofessional and Aides Educational Support Unit expired June 30, 2016. The two sides met 39 times over the past three years to work out a deal and then asked the state Labor Relations Board to hold a fact-finding hearing in an effort to break the impasse.
The fact-finder’s recommendations did not satisfy either side.
School board members said their main sticking point is not the typical topics of contention in contract disputes, salary or health insurance contributions, but flexibility. District officials want the ability to change paraprofessionals’ assignments and place them wherever they are most needed.
Paraprofessionals are educators who assist teachers in the classroom. Many work with special needs students, caring for those students’ emotional and physical health.
Others work as instructional aides or computer paraprofessionals.
District officials said under the current contract, if a special needs student in one building is absent, the paraprofessional assigned to that child cannot be easily moved to another building without going through a negotiation process with the paraprofessionals’ union.
“That makes it very difficult to meet the needs of our students,” said Director Jim Means.
The district wants to change a section of the contract known as Article 3, which requires the district to negotiate with the paraprofessionals’ union before school officials change an employee’s working conditions. It also wants changes to a section known as Article 23 that limits position transfers. District officials want to be able to move employees from one building to another without having the employee file a grievance.
Those provisions exist to protect employees from burdensome changes to working conditions and they have been in the paraprofessionals’ contract for decades, said Walt Michalski, negotiator for American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania, the union representing paraprofessionals in Bethel Park.
“The district’s argument on Article 3 holds no water,” Michalski said.
Special education paraprofessionals typically work with several children, so if one child is absent, the paraprofessional who works with him will still be needed elsewhere in the building. The district’s proposed changes to the contract could allow administrators to move a computer paraprofessional to fill the role of a special education paraprofessional as needed, Michalski said.
The fact-finder sided with the union and recommended against the district’s changes.
In the report, Fact-Finder Richard Dissen wrote the expired contract already gave the district the ability to involuntarily transfer employees after meeting certain conditions.
“The proposal by the district (would) substantially enlarge that authority but provide no recourse to an affected employee,” Dissen wrote.
For salary, the fact-finder recommended the raises the district proposed, but district negotiators wanted those raises contingent on changes to Article 3, which the fact-finder did not endorse. Under the district’s proposed wage chart, paraprofessionals would be given retroactive raises to 2016, when the contract expired.
New hires are typically paid $11.69 an hour now, but they would be paid $12.09 an hour next school year and $12.29 an hour in 2021-22, under the proposed wage chart. Those at the top of the pay scale, at step 10, are paid $17.84 an hour now, but they would be paid $20.54 next year and $22.04 in 2021-22.
The fact-finder also recommended changes to employees’ health insurance contributions, with employees paying an additional 1 percent starting in 2020 and in the following year, 1.5 percent, but only for those at the top of the pay scale.
The two sides will continue to negotiate. In the meantime, paraprofessionals will work under the terms of the expired pact.
In another matter, the board agreed to spend up to $100,000 on window protectant for all school buildings. The district will make the purchase through Sun Control Plus and the upgrade should improve security in the schools.