Penns Manor officials, teachers schedule contract negotiations

Mar. 2—CLYMER, Pa. — Penns Manor Area School District officials and teachers are set to meet at 10 a.m. Friday to continue negotiations on the new Penns Manor Education Association contract.

This is the first meeting since the educators went on strike Monday.

"Hopefully we can compromise and come to a solution," board vice president and negotiating committee chairwoman Jill Eckenrode said.

More than a year of negotiations have not produced a contract for Penns Manor teachers.

Several items have been placed on the table for discussion, but key aspects that have prevented a new agreement involve health care and early retirement.

The district has requested spousal exclusion on health care for seven teachers and that the early retirement incentives end or decrease by several thousand dollars.

"None of us, I'm sure on either side, wanted it to get to this point," Eckenrode said.

Eckenrode has been on the Penns Manor School Board for 16 years and served as chairwoman of the negotiating committee for half that time.

Before that, she was the majorette coach from 1985 to 2017, and her and her husband ran the Little Comets football program.

Additionally, she and her four children graduated from the district.

The board member said she cares a lot for Penns Manor and "firmly believes" the school has some of the best teachers in Indiana County.

However, she said that as an elected official, she has an obligation to the taxpayers and has to be mindful of the financial situation of the district, regarding a continued projected drop in enrollment and increase of many costs.

Speaking for herself, Eckenrode said as she views it, "the only way forward is that both sides have to understand negotiations are give and take."

Union officials have previously stated that all they want is a fair contract — district representatives have stated the same — and to not have to relinquish existing aspects of the collective bargaining agreement.

Educators have also stated that they believe board members and administrators aren't appreciative of the teachers, specifically their efforts to keep the doors open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I remember sitting in a meeting when our COVID numbers were getting high enough to the point of having to go virtual," high school English teacher Erica Laurer said in a Pennsylvania State Education Association release Wednesday.

"(Superintendent) Mr. (Daren) Johnston asked us what we wanted to do and without hesitation, we said, 'We want to be here in person with our students.' I remember another meeting in which Mr. Johnston told us that the school board appreciated what we had done and wouldn't forget it."

Eckenrode said the difficult negotiations have nothing to do with district officials not appreciating what the teachers have done for the schools, but instead comes down to financials.

"As difficult as it may be, it's going to take both sides to understand the position the district is in" to get a new contract completed, she said, and remember everyone's on the same team.