‘Early bird’ talks have board, PAEA optimistic about negotiations

PUNXSUTWNEY — Even though the contract doesn’t expire until the end of the school year, members of the Punxsutawney Area School Board of Directors and the Punxsutawney Area Education Association (PAEA) have been meeting to begin negotiating a new contract.

The current contract, which was approved in June 2007, and was retroactive to July 1, 2004, and expires June 30.

Board President Gary Conrad said the state must be notified six months in advance when the contract will expire.

“There will be an appointment set up shortly with a state mediator, which is scheduled for mid-February,” he said, adding that the board and union are looking at three different days for the meeting.

“All that meeting shows that we are running under their guidelines and starting the negotiations,” Conrad said. “We’ve been discussing the contract ‘early bird’ unofficially for the last several months.”

He said there have been different board members meeting with the PAEA negotiating staff.

“Since we’ve been talking, I think we’ve made huge strides towards a new contract,” Conrad said. “I’m very optimistic that we will have a contract without a lot of difficulty.”

The last time a new contract was negotiated, the teachers worked without a contract from July 1, 2004, until it was settled in June 2007.

There were several work stoppages that occurred throughout that period, with the start of the school year delayed in September 2005.

“The association has been tremendous to negotiate with Don Gill, president, and Becky Mauk,” Conrad said.

“Of course, you always run into stumbling blocks. Obviously, health insurance and wages are the two major issues, and there are some smaller issues that they want and we want,” he said. “I think we have trade-offs for everything, which will just leave us with the two major issues.”

While the full board has not been involved with the initial meetings, it has received progress reports. The board has not yet brought in an attorney, and the association hasn’t brought in its union representative.

“If we can sit down and get this done as a group, then we’ll know where the district is going to be five years from now if that is the length of the contract,” Conrad said.

Gill agreed that the PAEA has discussed the issues during “early bird” negotiating sessions with members of the board.

“I think it’s good to sit down face-to-face, and the board discuss their issues with us, and we discuss our issues with them. I think it can be very productive,” he said. “The law dictates the need for a state mediator, and one has been contacted, and a date to meet with him will be set up.”

“That is all dictated by state law,” Gill said. “I’m always hopeful that things can be settled. I’m an optimistic kind of person.”

He said there are a lot of issues on the table, with health insurance and salaries at the forefront.

“We’re at the point that we’re discussing our issues together and open to each other’s suggestions with the animosity factor taken out of it,” Gill said.

As a percentage, the total wage component of the collective bargaining agreement in the current contract represented average wage increases of 2.91 percent each year of the seven-year agreement.

Also in that pact, the district continued to pay 100 percent of the premium costs of eligible teachers’ health care insurance.

The contract did not contain an early retirement incentive.