Board rejects report again

LEWISTOWN – A rally in support of Mifflin County School District’s custodial and cafeteria workers did nothing to change the school board’s mind regarding the recent fact finder’s report.

The school board voted 6-1 Thursday to reject the report, the second time the board had come to that decision.

Board members Dr. Ruth Armstrong, James Hurlburt Jr., Beth Laughlin, Travis Parkes, Kirk Rager and Annemarie Swineford voted in favor of the motion to reject. Mary Lou Sigler voted in opposition. Board members Walter Harpster and Kristen Sharp were not at the meeting.

Parents, teachers, employees and public packed into a crowded room Thursday night as the MCSD Board of Directors prepared to vote for the second time on a fact finder’s report to solve a year-and-half impasse in contract negotiations for custodial and cafeteria workers.

In the hands and on the laps of those standing and seated around the room were small signs demanding that “Enough is enough – Don’t fire our cafeteria employees and custodians.”

During a public comment period, Diane Shearer, president of the Association of Mifflin County Educators, said she was at the meeting to support her colleagues. As the board considered its decision, she asked that they remember two character traits highlighted by the MCSD’s curriculum – compassion and integrity.

“…Compassion for these hardworking individuals,” she said, referring to custodial and cafeteria staff. “The kids know them, they call them by name. If you outsource, you’re gonna have strangers.”

She asked the board to be an example for students by showing integrity – standing up for local, taxpaying citizens, just as the association was standing up together in their support.

“The people of Mifflin County are tired of fighting this fight,” she said.

Jackie Fisher also stood up in support of the employees. She said she has no relationship with the workers and was speaking as part of the community.

“Some contracting is good … some contracting is bad,” she said.

Fisher said the dynamic of a school district can be compared to a team, with the same priorities, goals and investment in the future of the district.

“When you contract, you lose all that,” she said. “The dynamics change.”

If workers are sub-contracted, she said the district will lose allegiance and teamwork.

“It’s impossible to surpass a devoted team,” she said, surrounded by those supporting the same message. “I think we should keep our team together.”

“Our public schools are not for sale to the highest bidder,” said Tony Conner, who attended the meeting to represent the union. “Our public schools belong to the community. Please do the right thing this evening by approving this fact finding report.”

After about 40 minutes of deliberation in an executive session, the board passed a motion to to reject the fact finding report.

Russ Dauberman, UniServ representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the association is “very disappointed” with the outcome.

“Clearly, the community came out tonight to send a message to the board,” he said. “(Custodians and food service workers) will go back to work tomorrow and work hard.”

Likewise, he said the association will continue to bargain in good faith with the board, and hopes the board will bargain in good faith too.

After the vote, Superintendent Jim Estep read a statement on behalf of the board:

“At the June 6, 2013, special voting meeting of the Mifflin County School District Board of Directors, the board opted to reject the recent fact finder’s report. In an era of continuing uncertainty regarding state financial support for public education, and with the full knowledge that increases in costs of health care, retirement pensions, fuel, technology and debt service are likely, if not imminent, the board continues to examine possible ways to reduce or stabilize expenditures.

“The evidence of these efforts couldn’t be more obvious when one examines the changes initiated by the district over the past three years. Five buildings have been closed, two high schools have been merged and a sixth building is scheduled to close at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 school year. Further, nearly 85 positions, ranging from support staff to central office administration, have been eliminated through attrition or furloughs.

“Even as we have instituted these unprecedented changes in the system, the board continues to examine options that would allow funding that remains in place to be directed toward the fundamental core of public education – teaching and learning. The possible outsourcing of cleaning/custodial work is one such option that the board has been willing to explore. Currently, custodians are paid $16.22 per hour. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, the average wage for a building/grounds cleaning worker in Mifflin County, as of May 2012, was $10.30 per hour. Moreover, if the board ultimately decides to outsource cleaning/custodial work, it is estimated the district could save over $3.6 million over the next three years. If savings can be achieved in the overall cost of cleaning district facilities, this may enable funds to be redirected into areas where cost increases are imminent and more directly impact students.

“As it has been the case for nearly the past 18 months, the district intends to continue to negotiate in good faith with the Mifflin County Support Association in the hope of finding ways to significantly reduce the cost of custodial work. We owe this to our students and taxpayers.”