Jessica Sabol, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association explained that fact finding is a process that includes a neutral fact finder to hear factual testimony on the unresolved contract issues and review the district’s finances. Each side presents facts on each of the open issues and the fact finder then produces a report that could potentially become a contract if both parties agree to those recommendations.
According to Sabol, the school board demanded that the Pocono Mountain Educational Support Professionals Association enter into this fact finding to resolve the ongoing contract negotiation and the possible sub-contracting threat of the transportation services department.
The fact finder was appointed on Oct. 15 and returned his report on Nov. 25.
On Dec. 4, the association voted overwhelmingly to accept the fact finder’s report and the Pocono Mountain School District Board of Directors rejected the recommendation to settle the contract dispute.
In October of 2018, the school board sought out proposals for outsourced student transportation. It agreed on the proposal from transportation company First Student, and by April the board voted to outsource the transportation department. The board projected an average savings of $4.3 million annually over a seven-year contact, or a total savings in excess of $32 million for the district.
Bus drivers and members of support staff have been working under an expired contract since July.
Wendy Frable, director of public relations for Pocono Mountain School District, claims the district entered into good faith negotiations with the support personnel association as it is obligated by law before contracting out union work.
By September, it became apparent that neither the district nor the association would change their positions on contracting out student transportation, said Frable. Accordingly, the school district requested the fact finder appointed by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
In a statement released by the school board, the district contended that fact finder failed to “reasonably” and “responsibly” address transportation outsourcing, which left the school board no choice but to reject the report.
“The fact finder chose to fault the school board for reducing property taxes by 12 mills and not raising taxes over the past nine years for property owners rather than addressing the efficiencies and savings that could be achieved by Pocono Mountain School District through contracting out student transportation services.” The statement said.
The district contends that the fact finder gave no serious consideration to the tax burden of property owners or the dramatic changes to property values since the 2008 financial crisis. It said the fact finder’s report made no mention of the measures the board took to close a $23 million budget deficit in 2011 and to stabilize the district’s finances.
Those measures along with other cost savings initiatives allowed the district to avoid a state takeover of its operations, reverse its bond rating and restore the district’s fund balance.
“Our goal has always been to negotiate a contract that is fair, reasonable and affordable. Although we are very disappointed with the board’s actions, we remain willing to meet and negotiate until we reach a contract that is fair and in the best interest of all parties.” Cello said. “We are asking them again for support by reaching out to the school board and telling them to do the right thing and vote to accept this report,”
Among the conclusions in the fact finder’s report were:
— Projected budget shortfalls are not caused by transportation costs nor will they be corrected by subcontracting them. They are the result of the district’s budgeting especially by relying on excess revenue from the fund balance while unnecessarily reducing taxes instead of sound budgeting to maintain healthy reserves from reliable, consistent revenue development including setting realistic budget-driven mill rates and mill rate increases as needed to meet their fiduciary responsibilities.
— The PSERS debt, though real, is not the driver of the transportation budget. Shedding the transportation-related employees from the budget will not change the remaining long-term debt significantly.
— Although public school employment should not be considered employment at any cost to the taxpayer, local government has an overall responsibility to taxpayers when fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility by considering the short-term and long-term effects of their decisions, including health and supplemental disability insurances that are too expensive to purchase and retirement plans that are insufficient to sustain employees in retirement without their having to rely on some form of public assistance at taxpayer expense. It appears that the benefit package offered by First Student is a greater loss to current employees than gains the public and, especially, individual taxpayers may realize.
The fact finder went on to summarize in the report that the district’s financial recovery and fund balance growth were the result of estimating higher costs with lower estimated revenue. It found that PMSD should have continued in that direction, rather than continue to lower mill rates. Doing so, the fact finder said, would deplete the fund balance.
In addition, the estimated gains to the district from the First Student proposal did not justify the greater loss to the affected employees while not substantially benefiting the public.
“There is nothing in the record or in past decision-making that convinces me that any savings resulting from subcontracting to First Student will not be used to subsidize further unwise mill rate decreases.” The fact finder wrote in his report.
The public can view the fact finder’s report in its entirety on the PA Dept. of Labor and Industry’s website at https://www.dli.pa.gov/Individuals/Labor-Management-Relations/plrb/fact-finding/2019/Documents/Pocono-Mtn-SD-88-19-22-E.pdf.
Pocono Mountain School School District has 10 days to accept or reject the recommendations from the Fact Finders Report dated Nov. 25. The public is welcome to attend the next school board meeting on Dec. 11 at 7.p.m.