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Still No Contract for Bethel Park Teachers

Hundreds of teachers of Bethel Park School District started teaching classes Tuesday under a contract that expired more than two years ago.

The Bethel Park Federation of Teachers (BPFT) said it will continue to negotiate with the district in a Thursday night session. The union agreed in late August to continue contract talks while teaching classes under the 2005-2010 agreement.

After the last contract expired in July of 2010, the labor dispute came to a head later that year with a teachers' strike from late October to early December. Fact-finding and nonbinding arbitration failed to produce results in 2011 and 2012.

BPFT President and chief negotiator Diann Smith said the two sides have made progress in this summer's regular negotiations, and she's hopeful that a deal will be reached soon. Smith said her union has not voted to authorize another strike this school year; however, she did not rule out a second work stoppage.

"We have been without a contract. This is our third year where people have been frozen," said Smith. "We are following the contract of 2005 to 2010, and our discussions have been what we need to do to get it done. That has been the focus of all the discussions."

According to information posted on its website, the district wants teachers to switch healthcare plans from a preferred provider organization (PPO) to a health maintenance organization (HMO).  The plan would no longer cover bills from out-of-network facilities. The employee contribution would rise as well. The administration said the change would save Bethel Park School District $1.2 million over the life of a five-year contract.

The district is calling for one more "step" in the pay grade for teachers to reach the maximum yearly salary.  Under the administration's plan, it would take eighteen years to go from the starting salary of $46,700 up to the highest level of pay, $93,348. That change would save the district $2.6 million over the next five years, according to an "open letter" written by Bethel Park superintendent Thomas Knight.

The administration also wants to lengthen teachers' workdays from 7.5 hours to 8 hours, and increase the work year from 193 days to 195 days. Another revision would require all teachers to be available for a six-period school day.

District spokeswoman Vicki Flotta declined an interview for this story, but released a brief statement via email.

"Our teachers are in the classrooms and both sides are negotiating in good faith at the bargaining table," wrote Flotta. "The District remains hopeful to be able to come to a resolution that is fair for our teachers as well as our taxpayers."

From the union camp, Smith said recent negotiations have been promising.

"I'm hoping, and our members truly believe that if we come together and bargain in good faith, that we can wrap this up rather quickly, and reach a settlement that improves learning opportunities for the students, as well as respects experience that our excellent teachers and staff have," said Smith.

The union states on its website that the school district's publication of its contract positions is "detrimental to the process," and the BPFT has not made its own positions available to the public.

Bethel Park School District ranks in the 93rd percentile of Pennsylvania districts in terms of academic achievement, according to Smith.