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PSEA’s decisions, politics have hurt young teachers in my school district

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By Michele DelPrete

Lackawanna County–I have lived in Northeastern Pennsylvania my whole life and I attended North Pocono School District K through 12. As early as second-grade, my teacher inspired me to pursue a career in education.  NPSD’s excellent teaching meant I had many outstanding role models.  All but one of my 27 years as an educator have been at North Pocono. This community has made me who I am.

Michele DelPrete

As a music education major at Marywood College, I played violin and studied voice.  I went on to complete my master’s degree in education at Wilkes University.  I am the choral director, an SAP team member, a support group facilitator, and the Marching Units advisor at North Pocono High School.

At North Pocono, all but four of our 200+ teachers in the entire district (basically all of us) belong to the union. In fact, I am not against the idea of unions and was never unhappy with our union until recently. I never even really paid attention to what was going on at the state level with the PSEA because I didn’t feel like it affected me directly.  After all, we elect people to represent our best interests, right?  Plus, I was busy with day-to-day classroom responsibilities and didn’t have time to keep up with all that political stuff.

But in the last six to seven years, things have changed and been very tense in our district. It seems there’s more of a dichotomy in the North Pocono Education Association (NPEA) between the leaders running it versus teachers who are simply members. There’s a great deal of secrecy and very little transparency with decisions that directly involve and affect the membership.

The main problem I’ve had with the union actually doesn’t affect me personally very much—it affected a couple of young, non-tenured new music teachers. They were being cheated out of extracurricular pay that was rightfully theirs because of union leaders’ pettiness, jealousy, and personal agendas.

Here’s what happened.

In 2017, the leadership of NPEA, our local, convened a meeting of the school district’s extracurricular committee. The committee decided to eliminate three district summer music instruction positions while also reducing the pay of both the Marching Band Director and Assistant Marching Band Director. The union made these changes despite the fact that the positions’ responsibilities had not been changed in any way. 

The union leadership then decided to re-distribute those positions’ combined pay of $2,760 a year among other educators leading extracurricular activities, an unusual move for the committee.  The move hurt the two young women I mentioned above, but benefited veteran educators, including those involved in making the cuts.  The union vice president and his wife, the union grievance chair, were also the beneficiaries of the new arrangement.

Besides the hints of nepotism and unfairness associated with the decision, it was improperly made. According to our teacher contract, the extracurricular committee that decided to cut teachers’ music hours should have included an additional three administrators to encourage accountability. I complained to our local union leaders about this procedural rule-breaking, but over a period of several months, was brushed off. Also, by that time, the two young music teachers had already worked in those positions for some months and were told they would not be receiving the additional income they had already earned.

I wanted to file a grievance against my union. But there’s no official, legal way for a union member to complain against her union. I guess it never occurred to either Pennsylvania lawmakers or union heads that union members might need protection from their own leaders’ corruption at some point, just like citizens in a country or stakeholders in a corporation do. 

In the end, I chose the only grievance path available, which was to file a grievance against my superintendent, the lone administrator who had been “allowed” to sit on the extracurricular committee. At least this forced the NPEA to formally and finally resolve the issue of the slashed positions. Ironically, our superintendent and school board had been more supportive of my campaign to restore music hours than my own union had.  

My union officers and Uniserv representative—the very people meant to represent me and my interests—never even consulted me prior to discussing the music hours issue. When I did finally talk with the Uniserv rep, he didn’t even know the basis of my grievance.  Is that what I get for paying $900 a year in union dues?

Eventually, the school board decided to reinstate the summer school music hours that the extracurricular committee had improperly eliminated. In response, the union filed a grievance against the board. In fact, in an effort to resolve the issue amicably, the superintendent even found $12,500 in additional school district money to reinstate the music hours and positions the extracurricular committee had cut. Amazingly, however, the union refused his offer. How is it that the union was the one taking money away from teachers? 

The issue ended up being settled moments prior to arbitration, but without any input from me or my affected music colleagues. The unsatisfactory result is that stipends for me and my music colleagues have been frozen for eight years, while those for coaches and other advisors have increased. 

As a result of this ludicrous experience, I am now done with the union and have resigned from the PSEA. This entire, tedious process has not only been disillusioning, it has opened my eyes to the many other distasteful activities of both my local and state unions.

Year after year, there’s been so little transparency about what the union is doing. I don’t like that only 19 percent of my union dues goes to representation. I’m opposed to the PSEA and now my local union because of the way they run things. I’m tired of being told who I have to vote for and that I’m wrong to vote for other candidates because of other moral and religious issues that are important to me.

I want a union that is about what’s best for our kids and what’s best for education, not this other miscellaneous garbage that takes up so much time and resources.

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