The “power of people” can persevere over the “people in power.”
This is the campaign strategy that PSEA members in the St. Marys Area School District, Elks County, are using to fight the subcontracting of both teaching and support staff jobs to private, for-profit companies.
Since voting to form the St. Marys Education Support Professionals Association in June 2017, the district has continued with its quest to hire a subcontractor to fill the positions of secretaries, aides, paraprofessionals, and tutors.
Last school year, the district subcontracted a school counselor position, which the St. Marys Area Education Association appealed to the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. A decision is pending.
After more than 18 months of trying to settle a first contract, St. Marys ESP leaders decided last spring it was time to take their subcontracting crisis to the community.
“All we want is a fair contract, but the district and school board refuse to take subcontracting out of their proposals at the bargaining sessions,” said Michele Burdick, St. Marys ESP president. “Our members are among the lowest paid in the region. Support staff salaries and benefits are less than 3 percent of the district’s total budget, so this is not about saving money.”
With the support of the St. Marys Area EA, the ESP leadership team put together a comprehensive crisis community outreach plan that included inserting fliers into the local newspaper, letters to the editor, an online petition, a Facebook page, and educational letters to the community and school board.
“At first I don’t think our members really believed that we had the power to make a difference or to make them pay attention to us,” Burdick said. “The school board is clearly trying to intimidate us and to divide us, but it hasn’t worked.”
ESP leaders made sure that they had many conversations with community members about the consequences of subcontracting on employees, students, and the community.
“Once we made it a public issue, our members talked with friends, neighbors, and relatives about how subcontracting would hinder the district’s ability to attract and retain quality staff to work with their children,’’ Burdick said.
“School board members and administrators were clearly shocked that we were able to get so many community members in a short period of time to show up and speak up,” said Carla Cannon, ESP secretary. “It really showed district administrators and the school board that they have to consider the opinions of taxpayers and parents when making decisions.”