SCRANTON, Pa.—Fed up after working more than four years without a raise and being under a state-imposed austerity regime that eliminated pre-kindergarten, some 800 teachers in Scranton, Pennsylvania went on strike November 3.
“It’s reached a tipping point. We have to stand up,“ Adam McCormick, a high-school English teacher and soccer coach, told LaborPress. “They expected to settle their deficits on the backs of the teachers.”
“Teachers don’t want to be on strike,” says Kathleen Beckwith, a sixth-grade English and science teacher. “We’d love to be in our classrooms, but we’ve run out of patience. We’re fighting for our students, and we wish the district would prioritize them too.
Scranton, a city of about 80,000 people in northeast Pennsylvania, was once a prosperous regional center of anthracite coal, steel mills, and railroads. It was also an early labor stronghold: Terence V. Powderly, leader of the Knights of Labor, the U.S.‘s first major union, was elected mayor in 1878.
Its population, however, has shrunk by almost half since 1930. In 2019, the state Department of Education, citing the city’s stagnant tax base and high outstanding debt, placed the Scranton School District on “financial recovery” status, with strict limits on its budget.
Scranton teachers have been working under an expired contract since 2017. The city already had some of the lowest pay rates in the region, says Scranton Federation of Teachers President Rosemary Boland, with new teachers starting at $38,000.
The district, Boland says, is telling the union that any new contract must be “budget-neutral.” In other words, if teachers want a raise, they’ll have to find other places to cut—using the same amount of funds that was in the 2017 budget.
In 2019, chief recovery officer Candis Finan said that teachers could get raises “if cuts were made to healthcare spending and increasing teacher loads at the high schools, reducing all overtime and extra-duty pay, and asking everyone to not get paid for five days for 2019-2020. It is a real bargain!”
The recovery regime’s cuts, teachers say, include closing one school and eliminating art and music classes. (“Sometimes, that’s the kid’s outlet,” Boland says.) It has also eliminated sewing, carpentry, and electric-shop classes and closed school libraries. It ended pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds in 2019 and for 4-year-olds in 2020.
The pre-K program, Boland says, was one of the first in the nation, started in 1969. Some families moved to Scranton so they could get their children into it, says Adam McCormick.
“We had one of the premier preschool programs in the country,” says Beckwith, and, as they were federally funded, they “didn’t cost the district anything.”
“We have less now than we did when I started 24 years ago,” she adds.
The district has offered a three-year deal that it says would add $28.8 million in salaries and benefits. Teachers with two to seven years on the job would get a $9,000 raise over three years, while those with more experience would get up to $28,000. It said the SFT proposal would cost $13 million more and “offers no plan for achieving the savings necessary to pay for their demands.”
Boland says that under the recovery plan, those savings would come from laying off 82 teachers — on top of the 113 who have left in the past two years — and having teachers work an extra period and cover absent teachers’ classes for no additional pay.
The Scranton School Board referred questions to the district superintendent’s office, which did not return a call from LaborPress.
The board announced Nov. 1 that it would cancel teachers’ health insurance if they went on strike.
“We did remind them that there is a pandemic, but they said they had to do it,” says Boland.
It has also proposed switching them from traditional coverage to “reference-based pricing.” The district would hire a private plan that cuts deals with doctors, labs, clinics, and hospitals to pay them a set rate for specific services, usually a percentage more than what Medicare would pay. If the provider is not in the network and charges more, it sends the patient a bill for the difference, and the plan is supposed to negotiate a lower amount.
The only school system in the region using reference-based pricing is the nearby North Pocono district, and they’re having lots of problems with it, says Kathleen Beckwith. The process for dealing with out-of-network bills is slow and complex, she explains, and reimbursements come slowly.
Boland also questions why, if the district is in such dire financial straits, it has spent more than $1 million hiring the lawyer who said it was mandatory to cancel strikers’ health coverage.
“They’re trying to break our union, but, of course, they won’t,” she says.
Like other small cities in eastern Pennsylvania, Scranton has attracted a large number of immigrants in recent years. Boland says the district’s 10,000 students speak 36 different languages, including Nepalese, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Vietnamese. And that, she adds, makes libraries and support services such as interpreters and counselors essential.
“We need more help, more teachers, more nurses, but what we’re getting in Scranton is the exact opposite,” she says. “You’re screaming that you want the reading-test scores to go up, and you cut the library?”
The union sees hope in three new school-board members elected Nov. 3. AFT Pennsylvania President Arthur Steinberg said in a statement that now at least four of the nine members “will work with educators and parents to help solve problems and not treat them as distracting interlopers. Hopefully, the Republican-led state legislature and state recovery officer will see the results of this election as a sign that the public wants what kids need, not stripped-down budgets.”
“I’m hoping that they just listen,” says Beckwith.
“I left another district to come to Scranton,” says McCormick, who had worked there as a substitute. He grew up in the city, and his parents, brother, and sister are all teachers. His brother, who has two children and normally would be eligible for the large raise teachers get after 16 years on the job, has been particularly hurt by the pay freeze, he adds.
“This is what we do, but they’re making it very difficult to stay in Scranton,” he says.