Beaver teachers in dark mood

CALCUTTA – Black T-shirts were the dominant fashion statement among those attending the Beaver Local school board meeting Monday.

Members of the Beaver Local Education Association wore their signature shirts bearing the phrase “Back in the Black,” alluding to the compensatory demands of the union, which represents 131 teachers and a nurse across the district.

BLEA members, family and supporters crowded into Room 2 at the high school, spilling out into the hallway. Although none chose to speak, the majority of those attired in black held up signs throughout the course of the brief meeting. They carried slogans like, “We demand professional dignity,” and “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

Faculty at Beaver Local’s five schools have been working without a contract since August of last year, when a special one-year contract – negotiated while the district was in fiscal emergency – expired without a new deal to replace it. The customary contract length is three years.

Negotiations between the BLEA and the district, which have been a monthly occurrence since June 2012, reached a formal impasse in February. The current month-long “cooling off” period will come to an end on March 26 when a federal mediator arrives to assist the parties with their stalled negotiations.

A written statement was provided by Lisa Farmer, a Beaver Local High School teacher and spokeswoman for BLEA. “Our members are here tonight to demonstrate to the board that we are committed to reaching a fair contract,” it read. “It is our fervent hope that we can avoid any disruption to the educational process.”

“We just would like a contract that everybody can agree with, one that’s fair for both the school district and for the union,” Farmer said.

Neither Farmer nor Superintendent Kent Polen would offer specifics when asked about the nature of the negotiations thus far. “We’re always hopeful every time we walk in that there will be progress made,” Farmer said.

Polen and Farmer were equally evasive when asked about specific points of contention that have made a resolution unreachable. “We’ve been meeting to discuss the issues on the table,” Polen said.

The last strike by the BLEA was in 1990 and lasted for seven weeks. Farmer asserts, however, that union members are looking forward to working out a solution, not planning for a strike.

“That’s the last thing we want,” Farmer said. “We don’t want to do anything to disrupt anything that goes on during the school year.”