In A World of Black and White

John Hydrisko and Ritvik Prabhu

In studious battle

Over the course of the past month, you have likely heard remarks of “contract negotiations,” and “the union” around the school. You have likely noticed that our teachers line up outside and walk into the school together, as well as wear black shirts on a regular basis. The reason for this is that, currently, Radnor Township’s teachers are working without a contract. And not only the teachers, but the bus drivers and aides as well.

The teacher’s union—called the Radnor Teacher Education Association—has been negotiating since January for improvements in the new contract, with no result as of yet. This contract negotiation has been looming for some time. In 2011, the RTEA agreed to a two year contract, which lasted through 2012. When the end of this contract rolled around in 2013, a two year extension was added and agreed to. Now here we stand in 2015 at the end of the extension.

According to the Main Line Media News, the Presidents of both the School Board and the RTEA have “declined to discuss the sticking points of the negotiations…, although salary is undoubtedly an issue.” And although the RTEA cannot discuss their specific requests, it is fairly clear that salary is the concern. RTEA President Mr. David Wood said, “We’re having trouble getting people. Our salaries are less than competitive in the area.”

This is true; the surrounding districts have an average teaching salary greater than that of Radnor’s. The teachers of the RTEA further point out that they had been cooperative during the ‘lean’ years of America’s financial instability, but now the school budget has increased. They argue that despite the funding of new projects totaling $1.4 million throughout the school district, their salaries have seen minimal growth.

In a show of unity, the union has chosen to wear black shirts. During the first few weeks of school, the teachers wore this color on a regular basis. They continue to wear black shirts on Fridays and at Board meetings. The teachers held an informational picket during all open houses in the district, and have attended School Board meetings. Furthermore, the RTEA has attempted to demonstrate to the public how important teachers are to the school community. It has created a list of all the clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities that teachers sponsor without compensation. In September, the RTEA created controversy between the students, parents, and high school teachers when a letter was sent out on September 3rd, requesting that students not ask for college recommendations before October 1st. This request was rescinded later in the month on September 16th. The School Board and the RTEA continue to hold negotiations, but the union voted to strike in spring if a contract still has not been agreed to.

A lesson in competition

My eighth grade science teacher said “I love you” to my class at the end of each day. The same teacher also said, “If you just want to make a lot of money don’t be a public school teacher.” Few would question that this district benefits from an incredible faculty and support staff. Perhaps as a testament to this fortune, it can be easy to forget that teachers are paid professionals. It is no secret that the salary question is the sticking point in these negotiations.

“It’s all about money,” said one teacher, “that’s all it comes down to. The students are great. My colleagues are excellent people. Working conditions couldn’t be better. But money isn’t nothing.”

Here are some figures to give perspective to our student readers–an unemployed demographic. The average American earns $50,500 a year. The average American high school teacher earns $55,360 a year. Radnor is an outlier with an average household income of $182,611 (US Census Bureau). Like many American schools, a matrix of experience and education level determines teachers’ pay. Unlike most schools, Radnor teachers earn at least $48,500 a year, and up to $105,125.

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One Radnor parent (read: taxpayer) asked this: “They have great jobs. They have pensions, which are rare these days. Do they need more money?” The union could only say that it felt optimistic of the ongoing negotiations. But in several handouts, the union stressed the cornerstone of capitalism: competition. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education an average teacher at T.E. makes $84,257. In Upper Merion the average is $89,305. In Lower Merion the average is $88,899. The average Radnor teacher earns $81, 994 a year. The union makes two arguments. If the district does not raise salaries, the teachers will continue to suffer.  And Radnor might not be able to attract—or even keep—a high caliber of teachers

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Show your work

The school board finds itself in a precarious situation. By design, the teachers are in opposition: trying to get more money from the purse the board controls. One might think that the residents would side with the body that represents them. This is less and less the case. On October 6th, resident Stephen Elliot spoke before the board. Elliot congratulated the school board on “recent capital improvements at the high school.” He noted the benefit of the turf field expansion and new bus canopy. He then said that when he was at Radnor, the teachers were more important than the “physical space.”

Elliot’s father taught at Radnor for almost four decades. He based his arguments on an appreciation for the value of good teachers. To this end, he even listed several teachers that changed his life. Others present an argument that depends on a more pragmatic approach: money. The school board has more money than it used to and spends more of it, just not on teacher salaries. Since 2009, the school district budget has grown by $25.5 million or 36%. During that time, teacher compensation has risen only 4%.

At the same time, the district has rolled out a controversial full-day kindergarten program. The middle school holds class in a state-of-the-art building. The high school just received $1,480,000 in renovations including the canopy and field expansion.  Some might find proof in an ironic example. The board spent most of a meeting listening to opinions on how much to pay teachers. Then the board agreed to spend $347,180 on four propane-powered school buses.

Residents and teachers both expressed frustration with the way the school board’s actions. Mr. Rosin said, “The board has made this crisis. Competent management does not look like what I’ve seen here lately…dragging it out, treating it like it’s a game.” He then named several new candidates he plans to support during the next election. Resident Lori Landew said, “This is not being handled. We as parents are saying to you, ‘Get this done.’ It’s very important that you service us as a community and we would appreciate it if you would do it.”

No partial credit

President of the School Board Mrs. Kimberly Doherty said, “We remain dedicated to keeping the negotiations from having a negative impact on our students.”  However, on September 3rd, parents of the seniors received a letter requesting that students refrain from asking for teacher recommendations until October 1st. The RTEA did this to “get parents on their side” because “’none of [the other strategies] were really working,’”according to Philly.com. The RTEA felt that parents and the school board should see how important teachers were to the school community.

This decision created a lot of controversy among seniors and their parents. Senior Henry Minning posted on his class Facebook page: “This is WRONG. While I support the teachers in trying to negotiate a fair contract, it is not fair for students to be used as leverage as part of contract negotiations.” He continued to say that some early actions, early decisions, and military academy applications needed submission by October 2nd. Minning imagined that it would be extremely difficult for teachers to finish the recommendations in one day, and that “failure to submit a timely application which includes teacher recommendations could result in permanent and irreparable harm.”  Minning asked that this message be posted on the other class pages, and that students participate in a “peaceful protest”. This protest would feature students wearing white—the opposite of the teachers’ black shirts.

Sean Hanrahan, a senior who spoke at the most recent public School Board meeting, commented that, “the senior class, including himself, did not enjoy [the decision to not write recommendations] especially because they hated being used by the teachers as a bidding coin.” He acknowledged that “it made sense because [the teachers] weren’t being paid, so they didn’t have to [write recommendations],” but continued to say that “as a result the students were being hurt.” The problems essentially “spread from the Administration to the teachers to the students”.

RTEA President Mr. David Wood responded in the Philly.com article by saying, “’Teachers have not turned down students.’” The article continued with Mr. Wood “adding that letters could be written quickly to meet the October 2nd deadline.” School Board President Kimberly Doherty commented that the School Board members, “’were not aware this letter [to parents] was being sent.’”

The matter concluded on September 16th when the letter’s content was rescinded, and teachers began to write recommendations. Now that teachers are writing recommendation letters, they have gained more sympathy from students, parents, and other residents. For example, several students were present at the monthly public School Board meeting for September, and many more wore black to support the teachers after they agreed to write the letters. Sean Hanrahan “very much respects all of Radnor’s teachers” and has “too much respect and appreciation for the teachers to just watch them suffer yet another year.” At any rate, in the end every side should remember that a school is meant to serve the students.