How One Pennsylvania School Board Used Public Opinion in Contract Negotiations

After a year of contract negotiations, Neshaminy School Board President Ritchie Webb did something unprecedented.

Instead of keeping negotiations behind closed doors — as the school board had in the past — he went to the people who would be bearing the cost of the contract between the school district and the Neshaminy Federation of Teachers (NFT):  the taxpayers.

NFT leaders called it “not negotiating in good faith,” but community members called it “transparent” and thought of Webb as a hero.

But even after he began informing the taxpayers of developments in the negotiation process, the talks continued four more years. After they came to an agreement this past summer, Webb stepped down from the school board in December. He was on the school board for 10 years.

Long negotiating periods with teachers unions are not uncommon in Pennsylvania. Currently, the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers are negotiating on an expired contract. PFT has refused to take salary or benefit cuts and has not agreed to work-rule reforms even though the school district started the fiscal year with a $304 million deficit. Negotiations have been kept behind closed doors, and there have not been any signs of progress.

Webb is no enemy of the unions, despite being labeled anti-union and anti-teacher throughout the negotiation process. He is a member of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and two of his sons are union members, one as a police officer and the other as a carpenter.

“The Federation of Teachers tend to be more militant,” he said of NFT. “In fact, I believe their motto is pretty much, ‘Never give back anything.'”

The Old Contract

“In 2002, I could not believe what [the school board] had actually given,” Larry Pastor told Media Trackers. “They gave away the store.”

Pastor is a business executive from Middletown. He told Media Trackers that after the contract settlement in 2002, he swore he would be involved in the negotiations for the new contract in 2008. He formed a Political Action Committee and organized a grassroots group that supported the school board.

Both Pastor and Webb described the 2002 contract as one of the most lucrative in the state.

“This is a mathematical fact:  they paid $100 million more in excess than any neighboring school district over a decade,” Pastor said.

Webb said the more and more closely the school board looked at the contract, the more outrageous provisions they found. And beyond the contract between the school board and union, there were 201 “memorandums of understanding” — which were provisions agreed upon by the administration and the union but never the board.

Webb cited one of these memorandums that was related to retirement benefits.

After working ten years, teachers could retire and receive free healthcare until 65 not only for themselves, but also for their spouse and dependents. Upon retirement, they also received a $27,500 payout.

Another very expensive benefit for Neshaminy teachers was their healthcare, for which they paid nothing. Webb specifically cited the prescription benefits. Teachers could get name-brand medication for $20 or an off-brand for $5. If there was no generic brand, they could still get the name-brand medication for $5. The school district picked up the remaining cost of the prescriptions.

Webb said the provision that got the community most fired up was the Master’s equivalency program (MEQ). In order to qualify for a pay increase, teachers could take a course, paid for by the school district, to move up a salary step. These courses, however, were for pay increases only and were not necessarily accredited.

In addition to all that, teachers had 7-hour work days with a 30-minute lunch break for 188 days of the year. And, both Pastor and Webb pointed out, Neshaminy teachers were among the highest compensated in the state,  with an average salary in the neighborhood of $79,000.

“We want them to be well compensated and we want a great school district, but there is a limit and they hit that limit a few years back,” Webb said.

The Negotiations

“I spent a year with the negotiations team but we weren’t getting anywhere,” Webb said. “So, the approach was pretty simple:  I believed if the public knew what was in this contract, that they would have conniptions.”

Webb went before the editorial board of a local newspaper and talked about the contract, what was in it, and the status of contract negotiations. He made a comment that the teachers union was “on its own planet.” The headline the next day was “Planet Neshaminy.” Webb also formed a Citizen’s Advisory Committee seeking feedback from the community.

Still, the union refused the board’s contract proposals for the next year.

Pastor said the turning point was in 2010. NFT took a work-to-contract action for part of that year, meaning they didn’t do any extra work outside of contracted work hours, including before- and after-school help for students and writing college recommendation letters. Union members also boycotted “Back to School Night” — a night for parents to come meet their children’s teachers — as well as graduation.

“We have proven our point,” NFT President Louise Boyd told the Inquirer. “Through work-to-contract, the district and community realize the invaluable role teachers and education professionals have in our school district.”

More than that, the union established an atmosphere of fear. One of the teachers who attended Back to School Night despite the union boycott was targeted the following day.

“The next day one of the union vice presidents went into a classroom and verbally abused the teacher in front of her class,” Pastor said.

High school history teacher David Ferrara, after circulating a letter speaking out against the union leadership, found his car tires slashed the following day. Authorities could not prove union involvement, however.

Both Webb and Pastor were the under fire from the union as well. Webb said union members would visit his neighborhood and hand out flyers about him. Pastor said union members threatened him and his family and wrote and said unflattering things about them online and to the media. He even said they would file right-to-know requests about him and publish the information in an effort to silence him.

Eventually, however, the public opinion turned against the NFT, Webb told Media Trackers.

“I think in the end the union realized, number one, it was costing their members a lot of money not to settle this, but also that the public opinion was against them,” he said.

The New Contract

“There is no teachers union that was forced to concede as much as they did,” Pastor told Media Trackers. “And all of it was legitimate. This is what I would call as close to breaking a union as I’ve ever seen.”

The retirement incentives are gone, as is the free healthcare. In July, teachers will be paying 16 percent of their healthcare costs. MEQ’s — those taxpayer-funded, unaccredited courses that led to pay automatic raises — were also removed from the contract. Teachers must now take accredited courses from an accredited university.

The union also agreed to some work-rule reforms. For instance, instead of teachers choosing their position based on seniority, the administration can now place teachers where they are most needed, though teachers are still permitted to request positions. The workday has been extended to 7.5 hours and the work year is 189 days. Neshaminy teachers do remain some of the best paid teachers in the state.

“Neshaminy was in my opinion a huge give back — however they had a lot to give back,” Webb said. “Now this contract is comparative to surrounding school districts, and on the pay scale they are among the best compensated — they’re still right up there.”

NFT leadership has been legally contesting many of the new provisions. The contract expires in 2015.

“Our education programs will be much better and this type of thing avoided in the future if the community is involved,” Webb said. “I believe that will continue on. I would think with all the press and all that happened for them to give any of this back, the politicians would probably have to move. It was a long and drawn out battle. I don’t see them retreating.”

The Neshaminy Federation of Teachers had not returned several requests for comment at the time of publication.