NEW BETHLEEM – As the Redbank Valley Education Association (RVEA) enters its fourth week of immediate endless strike in sight, comments and actions from both sides have intensified.
According to a recent letter published by Robert Zaruta, chief negotiator of the Redbank Valley School Board Negotiating Committee, the district denied RVEA’s request for both parties to participate in voluntary non-binding arbitration on September 29. Explaining their refusal in a written statement, Zaruta said the district had already submitted its “best and final offer” and that the arbitration would not change that offer.
“Voluntarily agreeing to go through arbitration would be a deliberate waste of taxpayer money,” Zaruta said. He added that because RVEA subsequently chose to continue the strike until October 19, the district will have to resort to non-binding arbitration.
“In such a situation, the Commonwealth pays half the cost of the arbitration,” he said. “The Commonwealth will pay nothing if the district conducts voluntary arbitration.”
Zaruta went on to say that in addition to rejecting RVEA’s request, the district offered a two-part alternative that would immediately end the strike and ensure that another strike does not take place in the spring.
First, as stated in Zaruta’s letter, RVEA would submit the district’s “best and last offer” to a full membership ratification vote. Second, should the ratification vote fail, RVEA would allow the community to decide the outcome of the RVEA contract through a mandatory referendum in spring 2022.
Zaruta said that contrary to concerns raised by RVEA, there is nothing in Law 88 – which describes collective bargaining procedures – “that prohibits parties from agreeing to hold a referendum on the RVEA contract”.
“Although the district cannot unilaterally force a referendum, the parties can agree to it mutually,” he said, stating that RVEA said it could not accept the referendum proposal because the parties are required to follow all procedural mandates set out in Law 88. “Yet when the RVEA requested voluntary non-binding arbitration, it specifically asked the district to disregard certain procedural mandates in Law 88.”
On September 30, Zaruta said, the RVEA rejected the proposal, which means that, unless there is a sudden change, the strike will continue until October 19, when teachers will have to return to class.
In addition to a modified schedule ensuring that students will receive the required 180 days of instruction by June 15, both parties will have to enter into non-binding binding arbitration at that time.
Immediately after learning that the union had rejected the offer, the district ended teachers’ insurance coverage on October 1. Teachers can continue insurance coverage by opting for a COBRA plan at their own expense.
Dr Chad Shaffer, chief district negotiator, said the district had been informed that “it is standard practice to shift monthly health insurance premium expenses from the employer to the employee during a strike, and the district has moved in this direction. . “
“District teachers are able to maintain their health insurance coverage by paying for a COBRA plan within sixty days, and to pay for it they can use their health savings accounts, to which the district has contributed up to 55%. % of funds this year, ”he said. noted.
Against the board’s action and Shaffer’s suggestion, Patrick Andrekovich, UniServ’s representative to the Pennsylvania State Education Association which represents teachers at Redbank, said in an email late Tuesday afternoon that not only teachers had not received COBRA notices, but their HSAs had been frozen, preventing teachers from using their accounts for medical expenses.
“Whether intentionally or accidentally, HSA accounts are frozen and teachers have not had access to these funds since October 1,” he said, noting that several teachers have recently been denied access. to their HSA accounts to buy prescriptions, which had to be paid out of pocket. There are also concerns for those with scheduled appointments who might not be able to cover expenses. “The board of directors has put Redbank Valley taxpayers at risk of paying these costs.”
In fact, he continued, the Northwestern Region School District lost an arbitration in 2010 and was forced to reimburse employees for their COBRA payments and any out-of-pocket expenses that would have been covered by the insurance. of the district.
Likewise, Andrekovich said standard practice is to receive 30 days’ notice before terminating health care coverage and making a COBRA election.
“This decision [to terminate insurance coverage] affects not only teachers but also their families, including many young children who attend schools in Redbank Valley, ”read a Facebook post generated by RVEA on October 1, noting that this is not a common practice for school boards to protest against striking teachers. , especially in the midst of a pandemic. “Regardless of what you think of the strike, we can all agree that the elimination of children’s health insurance is not justified. “
Regarding the district’s demand to involve the community, Andrekovich highlighted the apparently selective use by the board of directors of a referendum vote.
“No referendum was held to agree to pay a lawyer $ 200 an hour, to establish the salary of the superintendent, the severance pay of former superintendent Dr. Mastillo, the severance pay of the ‘former Superintendent Drzweicki or not to purchase flood insurance which resulted in a $ 500,000 bill to Redbank Valley School District taxpayers, “he said, adding that a” referendum “is organized every four years with the election of school board directors. “The referendum question was a clever ploy to avoid resorting to voluntary arbitration. “