HARRISBURG -- Language regarding borrowing sick days from a future school year remains the single sticking point in union contract negotiations for the Harrisburg Unit 3 school board, Superintendent Mike Gauch says.
Negotiators forged a tentative two-year agreement between Harrisburg schools and the Harrisburg Education Association in late December, but the school board did not take any action on accepting the contract in its regular January or February meetings. At the February meeting, the board cited contract language regarding borrowing sick days as being at odds with the tentative agreement.
"It is the board's position that only one language item is preventing the parties from reaching an agreement," Gauch said in a statement Wednesday.
HEA President Debbie McGowan said union members are unsure why the little-used benefit is a great concern to the school board.
"We are not certain why they are so adamant about getting the sick leave borrowing language out of the contract," McGowan said. "They have advised us that very few members have taken advantage of this language. We feel that if there are people abusing the language then this is a disciplinary matter that should be handled by the administration and there is no reason to remove the language from the contract."
The language the board wants removed currently allows teachers to borrow up to 15 sick days from the future school year. Each teacher receives 15 sick days and three personal days per calendar year. The sick days accumulate while the personal days do not. Currently, a teacher may exhaust his or her 15 sick days and then borrow up to an extra 15 sick days from the next school year. A teacher is not required to use any personal days before borrowing sick days.
The board is proposing an alternative solution, Gauch said.
"This language has been problematic for the school board for the past two collective bargaining agreements and the board wishes to have it removed from the agreement," he said. "Instead of eliminating this language altogether, the board has offered to consider staff members' requests to borrow sick leave on a case-by-case emergency basis."
McGowan said HEA also is proposing alternate language regarding sick leave borrowing, rather than eliminate it completely.
"We are currently working on new language that will hopefully be agreeable to both parties," she said.
Gauch reiterated the point that the language regarding sick days is the sole point of contention with the contract.
"This language is key to the board's ability to be able to approve the agreement," he said. "The board of education is ready to vote on the contract as soon as the above language is addressed to its satisfaction."
Besides the sick-day language issue, Gauch also outlined what he said are the board's other positions on negotiations.
"The teachers' and the school board's bargaining teams have reached a tentative agreement on financial terms, and the teachers have ratified the financial tentative agreement," Gauch said. "The bargaining teams have no intention of changing the tentative agreement. However, please understand that the district may have to incur staff reductions to help offset the cost of the increased financial commitment from the district.
"The parties also have agreements on several language items that have been approved by both board and HEA bargaining committees.
"The Board of Education does not traditionally vote to approve the collective bargaining agreement until a complete agreement has been reached and reduced to writing."
McGowan said the union had concerns about other contract language.
"In addition to the sick-leave-borrowing language, there is also language regarding our insurance committee that is still outstanding," she said. "We are currently working on some language that we hope will be agreeable to both sides."
She also said that union members were under the impression in December that the board would vote to approve the contract at the first opportunity if the union ratified it.
"We are not sure why they haven't approved the financial package," McGowan said. "In December, the board offered us a financial package which our membership voted to ratify on Jan. 3 at the request of the board and their attorney. The only reason we voted on the financial package without the language being completed is that we were assured that the board would vote on the financial package as soon as we approved it -- that was over two months ago. Then, we were advised that approval of the financial package is contingent upon agreement to language -- something we were never advised of. Had we been advised of that, we would never have voted on the financial package when we did."
Though the tentative contract is a two-year agreement, eight months of the first year already is gone. The contract is retroactive to July 1, 2016, when the old contract ended.