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Our view: Harrisburg contract issues are troubling

By The Editorial Board
Posted on 2/24/2017, 5:00 AM

Something alarming is happening in Harrisburg.

On Dec. 20, negotiators for the Harrisburg school board and the Harrisburg teachers reached a tentative agreement on a new, two-year contract.

Getting the deal done was a relief for everybody involved and everyone in the larger sphere of school life. Classes would resume after the holidays, sports and other activities would go on uninterrupted. That it was a multi-year deal was especially gratifying.

But now it turns out the deal wasn't really done. Two months after the agreement was reached the school board is refusing to sign off on the contract and wants to reopen negotiations, apparently at the same point where the parties reached a tentative agreement back in December. Angry teachers are talking strike.

Our question is this: What changed?

More to the point: What circumstances have changed, what new numbers or information have come to light in the last two months that are now giving the school board pause?

The agreement in December was in fact, tentative. It wasn't a binding agreement, and neither side is obligated to sign it, although the teachers ratified it on Jan. 3.

A tentative agreement usually means that neither side is entirely happy, but that each has gotten enough of what was important to them to shake hands and be done.

A tentative agreement isn't supposed to mean, let's take a break and tackle this again after the holidays.

But apparently, in Harrisburg, it does.

"Unfortunately, to avoid a work stoppage and a school closure, the board had tentatively agreed to an economic settlement that was beyond its means financially, without having to make sacrifices," Superintendent Mike Gauch read as part of a larger statement at the school board meeting.

The question is, has the board had second thoughts recently, or were they planning to reject the deal all along?

The board is demanding changes to the provision that allows teachers to borrow sick days against future sick days. Less specific is that "some" board members believe the agreement will be so costly it will force the district to reduce staff or eliminate programs, and not enable it to fill positions when staffers retire.

That sounds like we're back to square one.

We're not taking a position here on who has the better argument. Our disappointment is that there is a strong possibility the school board made an agreement it never intended to follow through with.

Whatever happens here, that can have ramifications down the line, with other people, and other agreements.