MONONGAHELA – In a loud and raucous atmosphere, a large crowd of teachers, parents, students and taxpayers gathered at the Ringgold School District Board of Education meeting on Wednesday evening to express their opinions about the current Ringgold teachers strike.

The meeting had been moved from the district’s administrative offices to Ringgold High School Auditorium, presumably in anticipation of a large turnout. Ringgold’s school board quickly proceeded through routine business then opened up the meeting for public comment.

Doug Conroy was one of several Ringgold parents who spoke in favor of the teacher’s position.

“We have the lowest paid teachers in the region and that’s completely unfair,” he said. “We’re much over on the middle school construction. Some of that money could have been used to pay our teachers a fair wage. As much as my boys enjoy sleeping in right now, they would rather be back in school. They miss their teachers and their friends.”

Craig Bilsky, a Donora resident and Ringgold taxpayer since 1992, is not opposed to paying more taxes to give the teachers a more lucrative contract.

“I was looking at my school taxes and noticed that they went up $50 from 1996 to 2016. That’s only $2.50 a year. Now I know that I can personally pay more taxes to help support these teachers,” he said.

Several teachers from neighboring school districts attended the meeting, including Tim Booth a former math teacher at Ringgold High School. Booth said that he left Ringgold School District for a job with another school district because of a disparity in financial compensation.

“I enjoyed working at Ringgold but was left no choice but seek employment somewhere else,” said Booth. “That allowed me to live a financially sound life without having to work another job. I stand in solidarity with Ringgold’s teachers to seek a fair wage at a fair contract.”

For Ringgold senior Mackenzie Miller, the strike is all about respect for the teachers.

“Some people still believe that these teachers are greedy individuals who simply got into the wrong profession,” he said. “Granted, no one gets into teaching for the money, but I know that people don’t get into it because they love working three jobs to pay their student loans. Teachers teach because they can have a positive impact on so many lives. Why can’t you see that?”

During the meeting, Ringgold teacher Rachel Roberts presented the board with a signed petition from 150 taxpayers. The petition read: “We the residents, voters, parents and taxpayers of the Ringgold School District want the negotiations to begin immediately after the board meeting and continue until a settlement is reached. Our students need to be back in school.”

Maria Degnan, president of the Ringgold Education Association (REA) continued to accuse the board of devaluing the district’s teachers.

“Historically, when it’s time to bargain with the teachers, the district waits a year, while teachers work without a contract and a pay increase,” she said. “As the lowest-paid teachers in the area, we cannot allow that to happen again. That summer it was stated by the board and administration that Ringgold was on solid financial ground. Why is it, that you can’t pay the teachers what they deserve? Why are you proposing to devalue their salaries?”

Degnan followed up with a statistic to prove her point.

“A teacher with 12 years of experience in this district currently makes $1,500 less than what a teacher with the same amount of experience made in 2008. When you consider how much more expensive things are today than in 2008, that just isn’t fair,” she said.

As she finished her comments, Degnan asked the board to return to the bargaining table with a better offer.

“Ringgold is losing some fantastic teachers,” she said. “These are teachers that don’t want to leave but they couldn’t turn down $10,000 to go to a neighboring school district. As a school board, it’s your responsibility to remain competitive so Ringgold can hire and retain the very best teachers and ensure quality education here for years to come. It’s up to you to give the teachers a fair contract and the respect that they deserve.”

After the meeting ended, School Board President William Stein Jr. responded to questions from the media. He felt the meeting was not the appropriate forum for a back-and-forth conversation between the board and the public.

“We wanted to give people a chance to talk but there are a lot of emotions,” he said. “It’s hard to get into a dialogue in this situation. And sometimes that makes matters worse. We’re only going to negotiate in an environment that’s conducive to getting something done.”

Stein felt that progress was made during last Monday’s meeting with the Ringgold Education Association. But he added that much more work needs to be done to resolve the contract dispute.

“They are asking for $11.2 million over five years, which includes retirement costs and other benefits,” he said. “That’s almost a 5 percent raise a year. We can only raise taxes so much. I won’t apologize for making the district financially sound. And being financially sound doesn’t mean you have to break the bank.”

In a surprise announcement, Ringgold School District officials said that another negotiating session was being scheduled for Thursday morning. REA members told district officials that they were willing to resume talks at any time. Stein said that it is difficult to bring together all the key players on short notice.

“Most of the board members, including myself, work every day. We’ve been taking time off from work to attend the negotiations. But it’s not easy to work around the clock to make this happen. That said, if we can do it, we aren’t opposed to inserting dates between scheduled negotiations,” said Stein.

Per the requirements of Act 88, the law governing public-sector collective bargaining in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Department of Education last week issued a return-to-work-order for November 21, 2017. Ringgold’s 210 teachers have been on strike since last Wednesday.

“The bottom line is that we want our kids back in the classroom, and we want peace and harmony with our teachers,” said Stein. “We’re committed to giving our teachers a fair contract but we are also committed to being fair with the taxpayers.”

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