Standing Proud in Stroudsburg
An NEA local affiliate in Pennsylvania refines a model for pursuing professional educator pay, benefits, and working conditions.
By Dave Winans, Policy/Program Analyst, NEA Collective Bargaining & Member Advocacy
What—you might ask—do lively NEA local membership meetings, American Red Cross telethons, kids with painted faces and balloons, and teachers and retirees working polling stations possibly have to do with professional, competitive educator pay?
Well… Soar over northeastern Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, plop into the small-town Stroudsburg Area School District, and you’ll encounter the amazing Stroudsburg Area Education Association. SAEA provides strong leadership, encourages member participation, partners with education support professionals (ESPs), takes part in community events (with kids and balloons), and engages in big-time political action.
SAEA has organized and channeled all that energy into a six-year contract that boosts starting teacher pay—progressing from $41,846 in the 2008-09 school year to $51,800 in 2013-14—and provides 5 percent annual salary increases over five years. The local has accomplished all this without trading off medical/prescription benefits or educator rights.
SAEA’s agreement, approved last autumn by all 515 professional unit employees in nine schools, also guarantees tuition reimbursement at the state college rate for up to nine credits (after two years of service) and a well-crafted salary scale. The schedule maximizes career earnings by moving a new teacher upwards to “maximum” in 11 annual steps (12 steps in total), and horizontally (every six credits) through columns rewarding ever-greater professional development—right up to and including the PhD level.
It definitely pays to stay in Stroudsburg. SAEA President Glen Galante reminds newer teachers that “they’ll take a big loss” by moving to districts with much-longer schedules, and he urges them to forgo summer jobs in favor of college courses. And, he reports, outside teachers are applying to Stroudsburg because its salary schedule “has fewer steps to max.”
There’s yet another reason educators stay put in Stroudsburg. Because of SAEA’s vigilance around member pay, benefits, rights, and working conditions, “people feel good about coming to work each day,” stresses Galante, an instructional support teacher.
Introducing the Stroudsburg Model
A simple thesis here: The NEA local affiliates making the greatest salary gains are, inevitably, the best organized.
So it goes with Stroudsburg. “A few years ago,” Galante recently told the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) Voice, “our leadership set out to create a successful model for obtaining a fair and competitive contract for our members and building a strong association. We took advantage of every PSEA resource and event to look at other successful associations and use their models to build upon.”
The Stroudsburg model is based on strong, trained leadership—including officers, committee chairs, and building reps (20 for nine buildings).
“One aspect that helps our association become better every year is that individuals are taking advantage of training and greater degrees of involvement through PSEA programs,” notes award-winning SAEA editor Janet M. Smith, a reading specialist at Stroudsburg High School. “Each person who goes through that training has a greater level of commitment and knowledge.”
Logical Steps to Professional Pay
SAEA puts all that commitment and knowledge to work through:
- Member engagement. Stroudsburg professionals encounter their union up close through everything from 10-minute worksite meetings with the SAEA president to general membership meetings that liberally mix business, information, and socializing. Through meetings, print, a website, and e-mail, “we’ve become a transparent organization,” says Galante. “Members know about all the decisions of officers—there are no secrets!”
- Leadership development. SAEA keeps encouraging more members to “step in to lead,” be it to chair a committee or edit a website. “In education or business, success builds success,” notes Galante. “People want to be part of a winning team. [Invite] them in, then make them accountable.”
- Smart bargaining. The local’s core bargaining committee, fully trained by PSEA, is led by seasoned chief negotiator Doug Maclay. SAEA negotiators spend a year or more preparing for each round of contract talks, by surveying members, consulting with PSEA staff, “dissecting” the existing contract, and planning approaches to the table.
- Smart salary schedule construction. SAEA followed PSEA’s salary schedule “best practices,” which recommend—among other things—“moving employees to maximum as quickly as possible” and maintaining “uniform” increments throughout the scale. One result: SAEA won more money for general pay increases by eliminating huge “bump” steps (up to $8,000) reserved for a small number of teachers.
SAEA educated district negotiators to a basic fact: A shorter, smoother schedule would make salaries more competitive with those of surrounding districts—with less money! In fact, by the last year of the current contract, the “increment cost” (money doled out to just move people through the scale) will be a mere 0.8 percent, the second lowest in the state. This will allow the SAEA negotiations team to do far more than move members up a step each year—it will be able to put money where it needs to go in the schedule.
- Community involvement. SAEA builds public support for Stroudsburg schools (and teachers) through member involvement in community events and organizations—such as the local United Way “Teen Works” program, the American Red Cross Telethon, and the area Chamber of Commerce. Moreover, SAEA hands out its own Friend of Education awards (for local folks doing great stuff in the schools) and dispatches members and PSEA materials to well-publicized community events—featuring child face painting and balloons—that give parents tips on how to help educate their kids.
- Political action. “In order to be a progressive school district that attracts and retains great teachers and produces successful students, you need a pro-education school board that will invest in public education,” stresses SAEA Vice President and Election Chair Pete Sobrinski. “It’s that simple, but it’s not easy to accomplish.”
It may not be easy, but SAEA and its allies made it happen in 2007, helping elect four new education-friendly board members and re-elect two incumbent members. As one result, professional, competitive teacher pay has finally arrived in Stroudsburg. “A school board can determine your job,” Galante emphasizes. “You need to build your NEA local affiliate and make a connection between politics and the job.”
- Self-respect. Teachers tend to be humble about their work, not a helpful trait at salary bargaining time. But SAEA leaders won’t hear of it. “In our local newsletter, I tell members, ‘Don’t apologize for what you do!’” says Galante. “We constantly remind members how important they are, what they do has value, and that they deserve professional compensation—because they reach the highest level of professionalism.”
That, in a sentence, is what a salary campaign is really about.