Media Trackers has learned that the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the commonwealth’s powerful teachers union, has been actively influencing who serves as the local school directors that sit opposite the organization at the bargaining table.
Three days before last year’s general election, PSEA Vice President Jerry Oleksiak sent an e-mail to teachers in the East Stroudsburg Area School District (ESASD), located in Monroe County, urging them to vote for incumbent Democratic school directors Bob Cooke and Bob Gress, who were competing with four Republican candidates for four open slots. Cooke is a retired ESASD math teacher, and Gress works for the Monroe County Transit Authority. Both men were victorious.
The largest responsibility of the new ESASD school board will be the negotiation of the teachers’ contract for salaries and benefits, which expires in June of 2015. ESASD teachers currently are required to work seven hours a day (excluding a half-hour for lunch) and 180 days a year, with the average instructor earning $65,900 a year, or more than $52/hour. Teachers pay $1300 a year for family health care coverage, or about 2 percent of their salary, on average. The average worker in Monroe County earns $40,456 a year, and Mid-Atlantic region employees in the private sector contribute, on average, more than $4,000 a year (10 percent of their salary) toward a family health care plan.
The PSEA’s involvement outraged Larry Dymond, vice president of the local support workers union in ESASD. Dymond said that in late October his union was asked by the head of ESASD’s local PSEA affiliate, Ann Catrillo, to endorse Cooke and Gress, but she was told there wouldn’t be any endorsements. Oleksiak’s endorsement e-mail from PSEA was sent Nov. 1.
Dymond phoned Oleksiak at PSEA headquarters in Harrisburg to ask why the state union got involved given that his local union was neutral. According to Dymond, Oleskiak denied that the endorsement e-mail bearing his signature had been sent. Dymond said he printed the e-mail and faxed it to Oleksiak, who in a subsequent phone conversation with Dymond said, “You just don’t understand how things work. This must have been generated locally and ended up with my signature on it.”
Dymond told Oleksiak he was the most upset with the PSEA he had been since the organization endorsed the re-election of former state Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow, a Democrat from Archbald, in 2012. That winter, Dymond approached then-PSEA president Jim Testerman at a union conference in Philadelphia and yelled, “Everyone in a six-county are knows Mellow is rotten to the core.”
A few weeks later, the FBI charged Mellow with filing a false federal income tax return and conspiring to commit mail fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the state Senate.Oleksiak didn’t return calls seeking comment.
“The rank-and-file union members have no say,” Dymond told Media Trackers. “There should be some accountability in these decisions.”
Republican Gary Summers, a first-time candidate for ESASD school director who prevailed last November despite not having the union’s support, had asked Catrillo for a meeting prior to the election to present his positions to her union, but she denied his request. Catrillo refused to speak with Media Trackers.
“I am totally against former teachers serving on a school board,” Dymond said. In agreement is Mary Jo Moss, the former board president of the Blue Mountain School District (BMSD) in southern Schuylkill County.Moss and another Republican were voted out of office and replaced by candidates that had been endorsed by the local PSEA affiliate, one of whom is a former BMSD teacher. “The purpose of a school board is to represent the community, while the union’s role is to represent teachers – that’s checks and balances,” Moss said.
Larry Padora, who voted for Moss and is chairman of the Schuylkill County Tax Collection Committee, said, “The union is behaving like the mafia by trying to stack the deck completely in its favor.”
“How can you have card-carrying union members sitting on both sides of the negotiations? The taxpayers don’t stand a chance, and they are the ones paying for public education.”
Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said his organization has neither a position on union involvement in school board elections nor on former teachers serving on school boards.