Educators take a stand

Pine Valley teachers demand fair contract

OBSERVER Photo by Damian Sebouhian Pine Valley teachers and supporters stand next to Route 83 in front of the school building. Pine Valley has suffered an 18 percent turnover in teachers in the last four months and the district’s educators are currently working without a contract.

SOUTH DAYTON — Approximately 70 Pine Valley teachers and supporters braved the wind and rain Wednesday afternoon to hold an “informational picket” regarding the issue that the district has not come up with a contract that is suitable to the area educators or the Teacher’s Association.

The group stood in front of the school building, displaying a variety of signs that included: “Hurt Our School, Hurt Our Future,” “Educate Not Educut,” “Where Have All the Teachers Gone?” and “Payne Lies, Pine Valley Dies.”

Scott Payne is the district’s superintendent, who, according to labor relations specialist for Pine Valley Teacher’s Association John Lichtenthal, “got up (during a recent meeting) and said ‘teachers are leaving all over the place. That’s happening everywhere.’ Well, we did our research, and no it’s not.”

Lichtenthal said that Pine Valley has experienced an 18 percent turnover in teachers in the last four months.

“None of those were retirements,” he said. “Two thirds of them were either alumni of Pine Valley — so had a strong connection to the area — or were veteran teachers who had been here for eight years or longer.”

Such a turnover rate is the highest in Chautauqua County, Lichtenthal said.

“Most school districts have maybe a 5 or 6 percent turnover. A lot of those are due to retirements; they’re not veteran teachers who are picking up and leaving a district they have a strong connection to.”

Why the sudden exodus of quality teachers from Pine Valley?

“It’s due to contract problems,” said Lichtenthal. “(The district’s) economic proposal was basically to get rid of the current salary structure and replace it with a structure that would pay teachers merit pay, which only guarantees a $300-a-year increase. (That) doesn’t even keep up with inflation.”

Lichtenthal explained that the last contract, which expired at the end of June, guaranteed a 2 to 3 percent yearly increase.

“This new proposal is less than half a percent,” he said.

Lichtenthal stopped short of appointing blame to any one particular person regarding the contract issues, but said that “ultimately the board of education is responsible.”

“The support unit (bus drivers, janitors, etc.) is also without a contract,” Lichtenthal added. “They’ve been without a contract for over a year now.”

Because the teacher’s contract has expired and a new contract hasn’t been agreed to, “Nobody has gotten an increase. In fact, several teachers have taken a pay decrease.”

Lichtenthal surmised that the district’s position is that a new contract structure is required due to a consistent downward trajectory of student enrollment.

“We recognize that student enrollment is down,” Lichtenthal admitted. “Yes, we agree we need to take a look at that. Why don’t we extend the current contract (the one that expired in June) for one year while both parties sit and kind of explore the options.”

The one-year extension proposal was turned down by the district.

“They said ‘no extension, we’re at an impasse, we need a mediator,'” Lichtenthal recounted. “Now we’re in mediation. We want either the possibility of a one-year extension or just a fair contract with fair raises.

“Teachers in Pine Valley right now are among the lowest paid in Chautauqua County and work head and shoulders above the longest day of any teacher contract in the county. (We’re) asking for a fair contract, at least one that doesn’t have them going backwards, losing what they already have.”

While the dispute between teachers and the district continues, more and more quality educators are fleeing for more stable districts.

“The president of the Teacher’s Association left (recently),” Lichtenthal said. “He’s an alumni with tons of experience, a dedicated teacher and a was a great president. He said he had to do right by his family. He knows he’s going to get more pay and have the certainty of a contract (at a different district). Teachers are leaving Pine Valley in droves. The Association wants to stop that. They want to protect the school, protect the district. That means getting a fair contract, and getting it now.”