Teachers, union clash in dueling public lettersThe teachers union posted an open letter on its Web site on Wednesday stating its stance on contract negotiations.

"The Downingtown Area Education Association has gone on strike, an action we did not want to take," the letter says. "We feel the board gave us no choice."

The letter goes on to say the board gave the union its last offer and the union rejected it "because it would leave Downingtown teachers far down the list of Chester County educators in pay, in spite of the fact that we are one of only 13 Blue Ribbon schools in the entire state of Pennsylvania."

In response, the school district's board of directors has stated its own stance on the negotiations.

"Teachers in our district are paid a fair, competitive wage. First-year teacher salaries are second in the county," the school board's letter says. "The board negotiates with the union a specific sum of money that will be used for salaries. It is the union leadership who determines what percentage each step on the teacher's salary matrix."

Both letters address the issue of binding versus nonbinding arbitration.

"The school board asked us to go to nonbinding arbitration. This was simply a delaying tactic; the recommendations of the arbitrator would not bind either side, so it would have no real impact on negotiations," the union's letter says. "We said we would not strike, if the board agreed to binding arbitration, because we want all this to be over."

"In an effort to keep schools open, the board asked the union to submit to the nonbinding arbitration now rather than wait until the end of this first strike," the school board's letter says. "It is important for the community to understand that in demanding binding arbitration, the union is asking the board to by-pass Pennsylvania law and take away our community's right to have their elected officials make the ultimate decision in determining the district's financial future."

The union's letter ends by stating, "please know we did everything fair we could to avoid this, including acceptance of a lesser health plan and a reduction in our salary request." The union asked the community "to understand our desire in working to keep Downingtown a top district and we ask for your support."

The board's letter ends by stating, "given the financial challenges that will affect the district in the years to come, we believe we have offered a balanced contract that compensates teachers without placing additional heavy burdens on our taxpayers. Knowing this, we hope the union will continue to give serious consideration to the proposal on the table and work with us to come to a positive conclusion to this negotiation process."

Students worry strike could cut into vacation

Despite the blustery conditions Wednesday, teachers walked the picket lines at schools and the administration building in the Downingtown Area School District.

Wednesday marked the second day of the strike in a school district of 11, 725 students.

Teachers picketing at Lionville Middle School waved to people driving along Route 113. Some drivers showed their support by honking their horns.

Sarah Stahl and her brother Richard, who are students at Lionville Middle School, walked the picket line with teachers Wednesday afternoon.

They held signs that read: "We want our summer."

Sarah Stahl said they support their teachers but they are also worried about losing their spring break and summer vacation.

Jeff Gillinghan, a cousin of Sarah and Richard, also walked the picket line. He is not a student in the school district, but he held a sign that read: "Send my cousins back."

Two Downingtown East High School seniors brought coffee to their teachers at the picket line.

"I'm behind the teachers," said student Zach Geisler. "But then again I don't have to deal with taxes."

Seniors' graduation and vacation plans could be disrupted this summer.

But Geisler said the students have not yet been informed of how this will affect their plans.

"It's all pending at this point and up in the air," Geisler said. Dave Mailey, another senior at Downingtown East, is on the wrestling team. He said his coach cannot instruct the team during the strike, so an administrator is stepping in to help.

Parents' opinions differ on strike

Parents in the Downingtown Area School District have mixed views on the teachers strike.

"I wish the teachers would go back to school," said parent John Cobia, outside of a grocery store in Uwchlan.

"They have the most important job in society and it's not reflected in their pay," said resident Lori Vanderbilt, whose two stepchildren graduated from the district.

John Thelman, a teacher at Collegium Charter School, said the strike is causing problems because teachers at his school do not strike. He has to pick up his grandson each day from the YMCA day care program at Downingtown West High School.

Don Morabito, a parent and graduate of the school district who now teaches in a neighboring school district, said, "I very much support the position the teachers are struggling for." He said the nature of the salary request is fair for the region.

"My own opinion is that the teachers are being extremely unfair to the kids," said Carolyn Ganzelli, a parent in the school district. Ganzelli said she believes that the union, not the school board, "put the children on the streets."

Gary Roskin, another parent, said his family moved to the area because of the teachers.

"I'm very disappointed with the school board," Roskin said. "I feel they've had well over a year to negotiate a contract and they should have settled on it by now."

Some people have said their families are not directly affected by the strike. Rick Zajac is one of them.

But, "I'd certainly like to see it settled," he said.

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