‘This was not an easy decision’: Harrisburg teachers prepare for one-day strike

By: - May 29, 2019 10:22 am

Saying that their district is “in the midst of a crisis” and unable to provide satisfactory working conditions to its employees, teachers in Harrisburg’s public school system are planning a one-day strike on Friday.

In a press release issued late Tuesday night, representatives for the city’s public teachers’ union said the one-day strike will call attention to the district’s alleged unwillingness to meet with their negotiators for collective bargaining sessions.

The call comes shortly after Harrisburg voters ousted four incumbent school board members in the city’s municipal primary elections.

That election was seen by many as a recrimination of the sitting board and the district’s administration.

But the announcement of Friday’s strike shows that the election was not a panacea for the struggling district, which could be put under state control if its elected officials get their way.

It’s unclear whether or not Friday’s strike will disrupt classes for the 5,000 students across the district. Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney will decide by Thursday whether to cancel classes, according to a statement her administration released late Tuesday.

“This was not an easy decision for our members,” Jody Barksdale, president of the Harrisburg Education Association teachers’ union and a middle-school math and science teacher, said a statement.

“Our teachers were reluctant to disrupt our students’ schedule and activities Friday. However, we believe that the short-term disruption was outweighed by the need for long-term change and improvements to our kids’ education, well-being and future,” she said.

Union representatives charge that the district has declined to meet its negotiators at the bargaining table, and instead tried to codify 17 items that should be subject to bargaining — including wages and working conditions — in a district-wide recovery plan it’s drafting with a state oversight officer.

District officials were “completely blindsided” by the union’s strike announcement, according to a statement.

The district’s chief negotiator, Jeffrey Sultanik, said in the release that the union has not brought a salary or benefits proposal to the bargaining table.

He also said that the district scheduled a meeting with union reps for the following week, confirming the time and date just hours before the union announced its strike on Tuesday.

Union reps could not be immediately reached for comment on Wednesday morning.

Under Knight-Burney’s leadership, the district has endured a string of bruising personnel scandals in the last year and a half.

Hundreds of teachers have resigned from the distressed district. And an accounting snafu last year left 54 former employees on its benefits payroll.

Last summer, the teachers’ union filed a grievance after the administration hired more than 60 employees at the wrong salary step, then asked them to pay back wages totaling more than $500,000.

This spring, the district also jeopardized more than $11 million in federal funding when it resisted a state-mandated audit. PennLive reported last week that Knight-Burney fired interim Human Resources director Barb Richard one day before a recruitment fair where the district hoped to hire new teachers.

The district’s highly publicized controversies have led Republican state Sen. John DiSanto, Democratic state Rep. Patty Kim, and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse to call for the state to take control of the district.

They’ve each separately lobbied the Pennsylvania Department of Education to initiate the process to appoint a receiver, who would assume all operational duties of the school system for at least three years.

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.