By Steve Gunn

PINE, Penn. – Taxpayers are finally starting to understand the obvious:

If they want their local schools to gain control of their budgets by curtailing runaway labor costs, they will have to come out of hiding and demand change themselves.

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That’s what’s happening in the Pine Richland (Pennsylvania) school district, where the school board and teachers union are currently in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

Instead of sitting passively on the sidelines and allowing negotiators to cave in to union demands, taxpayers are getting involved.

About 50 recently signed a petition asking the school board to force teachers to increase their health insurance contribution from 5 to 15 percent. And a crowd of residents packed a recent board meeting to demand that teacher salaries be frozen and property tax increases halted.

“We believe the most significant way to reduce expenditures is to adopt a teachers’ contract that reflects the realities of the current economic climate and the projection of future shortfalls in the budget,” the petitioners wrote.

This is all very refreshing. For too long, public school teachers have used their influence to convince parents and other residents that every wage and benefit increase they receive is richly deserved, and forcing them to accept less would somehow hurt students.

But the people of the Pine Richland district realize that union labor costs dominate public school budgets, and no money can be saved unless those costs are trimmed.

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And they are still licking their wounds from a recent tax increase imposed by the school board. If they have to carry more of the load, so should the teachers.

The citizens are particularly worried about $7.2 million the district must come up with by 2016 to cover its contribution to the Pennsylvania State Employees Retirement System. The way they see it, the teachers’ pension system is causing the financial problem, so the teachers should accept a few sacrifices to keep the district financially sound.

Teacher salaries in the district currently range from $43,661 per year ($29 per hour) to $95,650 per year ($64 per hour). Twenty percent of the teaching staff earns more than 92,000 per year.

“We’d like for our teachers to show temperance,” said Patti Deschamps, a former school board member who helped establish the citizens group. “Every day we get more people who want to be part of this petition and be better educated.”

Sadly, those waiting for the union to accept concessions should be advised not to hold their breaths. The Pine Richland Education Association has acknowledged that it plans to live off the fat of the expired contract until an acceptable new pact is negotiated.

This tactic, allowed by state law, takes much of the pressure off the union to come to terms on a new contract. Members can go on working without a pay freeze or added insurance expenses while negotiations continue well into the future. And it puts extra pressure on the school board to give the union what it wants, regardless of affordability.

Perhaps the school board will be emboldened by the support of residents who want the district to cut labor spending. And maybe the union will feel a bit of shame and lower its bargaining demands with the public closely watching.

In any case, three cheers for the people of the Pine Richland district for making their voices heard. It’s the only way to crack through the closed doors of the negotiation room and have some influence over district spending, now and in the future.