Reaching for the middle ground on teachers’ talks

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UCF contract talks leave parents, students, taxpayers in increasing war of words

By Mike McGann, Editor, Unionville Times

At some point in the conversation, you have to get past posturing and get down to problem solving.
Like taxpayers, parents and others with a direct stake in the ongoing negotiations between the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District and its teachers’ union, the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Association, I’m caught in the middle between both sides.

Forget for a second that I am a taxpayer here — my wife and I have owned a home in Pocopson for more than 11 years — and my kids are students in the district. It’s the constant tug and pull going on, as one side and then the other tries to make their side of the argument, reacting to each one of my new reports on the status of the talks.

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The complicated truth of the matter is this: both sides are right and both sides are wrong, which makes it complicated at best to honestly and fairly cover these sort of events. That’s not to say that either side is populated by bad people or evil doers — quite the opposite, and I know all the people involved are good people doing what they think is exactly right from their perspective.

Therein lies the problem: the increasing lack of perspective as these talks drag on. Here are two truths: there’s not enough money to give the teachers a big pay raise and, frankly, we probably don’t pay our teachers enough, not that any district does, but the student achievement in Unionville, both by measured numbers and anecdotal reports, suggest that they do an exceptional job.

Out of that conflict of competing truths, somewhere, people have to find a solution. You could see a few heads nod the during the school board meeting the other night when Karen Halstead, in her colorful and unique way, suggested that the professional negotiators on both sides weren’t helping get a settlement done.

I tend to agree, having covered my share of labor strife over the years. Without question, the professionals are better at representing their side — but when you have two going head-to-head, and neither with a personal stake in the proceedings, it can become a polarizing “us versus them” situation, leading to a stalemate, or worse, a strike.

In reality, though, it’s all just us — and we as a community have to come together and figure out how we’re going to navigate this mess — a mess, I might add only partially of our own creation. The high school renovation project led to two things that have complicated matters: a larger debt service than might have been possible with a scaled-back project and a more fiscally conservative school board, elected after the community felt like the previous board had ignored its wishes.

What isn’t anyone’s fault in the community is being the middle of the worst economic downturn since 1930s. The bad economy and an utter lack of wisdom by the state legislature caused the current crisis with the Public School Employees Pension System and it’s possible that is unfair to blame the teachers — the only group that actually has paid their fair share to the pension fund in 2001.

The pension and the details of the pension are something to take up with out local state legislators — and while the final numbers have to be part of the conversation, they shouldn’t be used as a hammer to bludgeon teachers.

At the same time, the teachers know that things aren’t so great even in this wealthy community. You don’t have to go far to hear about McMansions with no furniture and tales of repo men grabbing Lexus SUVs — the great recession has hit Unionville, too.

The politics require compromise — and truthfully, I don’t think the board will — or can — make much in the way of a big step. Because of the politics — let’s not forget that three of these board seats are up in 2011 — and the lingering anger in the community over repeated max tax hikes and high school project, this board pretty much has to take a fiscally prudent stand. Not to mention the fact that they can argue pretty effectively that there is only so much money; the more spent on teachers means less spent on kids.

What’s needed now is a cool head, and less attempts to win the headline war. There’s no good solution here, but we as a community must find the least bad one — one that fairly balances the needs of taxpayers and students.

I know Unionville can do this. Let’s show them.

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