After more than 16 months at the negotiation tables, both sides of a contract issue for support staff in St. Marys School District believe they are no closer to a compromise on wages and benefits.

Lucy Harlow, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the school board and administration “are trying to intimidate employees by threatening to terminate them and to hire an out of town for-profit corporation to take over the management of their jobs.”

In response, Superintendent Brian Toth said the PSEA unjustly attacked him and the board and noted that “there have been no threats to fire anybody.”

In a recent phone interview, Harlow said the goal of the St. Marys Education Support Professional Association is to achieve a fair contract for the support staff employees. In addition, Michele Burdick, president of the St. Marys association, noted that “all we are trying to do is to settle a fair contract that helps our employee-members make comparable wages and benefits to other employees in neighboring districts.”

Harlow said another goal of the union is to have subcontracting proposals taken off the table.

“Subcontracting aides and secretaries is not something that is done in most districts because these are local community people who work directly with the children,” Harlow said. “For most folks, this is an important job. If they subcontract they’re going to be in a situation where they devalue those jobs and they may very well lose some of their best employees.”

Other support service employees in the district, which number at 68, are paraprofessionals, tutors, cafeteria monitors, van drivers and facilitators. The group voted in June of 2017 to form a union with PSEA, and have been trying to negotiate a first contract since December of 2017.

Harlow claims that once a subcontractor is brought in, the district can then create “new jobs” and subcontract those jobs. She believes this is already being done with vacant positions. Additionally, Harlow thinks Toth and the district will not be able to guarantee who a subcontractor hires. The union also takes exception to the district’s calculations that subcontracting will save significant money.

“Superintendent Toth says the subcontracting will save the district $300,000, yet he had no problem accepting a $16,000 a year raise in his new contract — for a total increase of $80,000 over five years,” Harlow said. His salary when he was hired was $140,000 and now it is more than $156,000.”

For his part, Toth said the assertions by the association regarding his salary are untrue.

“First, as of (July 1, 2019), my salary is frozen in my new contract,” Toth said. “I will not receive any raises in my new contract.

“The district also wants a fair contract for the support staff,” Toth said. “Because wages were so low in the past, significant increases were given in 2015 and 2016 and more were planned. Thus, our wages are competitive in the region. As of 2017, these increases needed bargained.”

Toth said the district has insisted on bargaining outsourcing.

“Bargaining outsourcing would protect longtime employees by keeping them as district employees,” Toth said. “Bargaining outsourcing is not intimidation but due to the lack of state funding the district needs to create opportunities for savings.The district has proposals showing outsourcing saves about $322,000 annually... almost one mill of taxes.”

In addition, he said bargaining outsourcing guarantees that employees maintain their jobs, guarantees their wages and as shown with other outsourcing, maintains local employees and local taxes.

“We have outsourced for many years,” he continued. “For example, three bus contractors, Aramark (custodial and maintenance), Nutrition Group (food service) and Source4Teachers (all substitutes)” are outsourced.

“The district is willing to transition the outsourcing... not doing this all at once,” he added. “Therefore, savings would be spread over this transition.”

Toth said he and the board have focused on a family-centered approach toward all students and employees, and have been hurt by the negative images of them published by the union.

“But we’re going to focus on the positives and good things,” he added. “We’re also going to look at what’s best for the future of the school district.”

Additionally, he believes outsourced companies will still hire local people. He pointed to the fact that a number of businesses in the community are owned by outside corporations or entities that hire local employees.

“We’re not looking at anything differently than the community has already experienced,” Toth said.

On a final note, Harlow said there will be a bargaining session on the contract on June 6.

“We’re really hopeful that between now and then community people and the school board come to the realization this has created a community crisis when there doesn’t have to be,” Harlow stated.