Coping with no school in Souderton. Strike brings time to fill idle minds
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Coping with no school in Souderton. Strike brings time to fill idle minds

September 6, 2008

Kristin E. Holmes, Philadelphia Inquirer


For parent Carole Wood, the teachers' strike in the Souderton Area School District has meant postponing her planned return to work after having a baby.


Wood, a mother of five, was set to resume her job as a personal trainer.


"I had found child care and the kids were ready to go back, and now it's all on hold," said Wood, of Telford.


The strike in the Montgomery County district has sent parents scrambling for child care and looking for ways to occupy idle minds. Students have filled the unexpected time off with jobs, video games, sports and, in some cases, nothing in particular.


The teachers' strike that began on Tuesday is the result of a standoff between educators who want higher pay and benefits in a county where their starting salaries rank among the lowest in the Pennsylvania suburbs, and school district officials who argue that union demands are unreasonable.


The sides met to negotiate yesterday, but talks broke off and no new date has been set. At least one thing is sure: Schools must reopen by Sept. 24 - with or without a contract - so students can get in the required 180 days by June 15.


Parents are hopeful that the impasse won't drag out that long.


"Hopefully, they can quickly come to some middle ground where everyone will be happy," said parent Patricia Lembo of Souderton.


The strike comes at a time when the district is coping with growth and expansion in an area of upper Montgomery County that 25 years ago was largely rural. In 2004, a comprehensive plan was developed for the region "to ensure smarter growth" in an area that was feeling growth pressures pushing out from Philadelphia.


The district includes Souderton and Telford Boroughs and the townships of Franconia, Lower Salford, Upper Salford and Salford. At 49 square miles, it is the largest district geographically in the county.


Housing development and business growth have led to a spike in student population. In 1990, the school district population was 4,900. Current enrollment is 6,900 and an increase to 7,247 students is projected by the 2013-14 school year, according to a study by the Pennsylvania Economy League.


The district opened a seventh elementary school in 2003 and is building a new $114 million high school.

The cost of managing that growth, largely by way of property taxes, has pitted factions of the community against each other, said parent Bob Solomon of Lower Salford.


"It's a situation that puts people who have children in the school district against people who are on fixed incomes and may be seniors," Solomon said.


The district's 2008-09 budget included no tax increase for the first time in at least 20 years, according to the district's Web site. The budget of $95.8 million was a $2.2 million increase over the 2007-08 budget of $93.6 million. The district levies a 1 percent earned-income tax. Residents also pay $2,446 for every $100,000 of their property's assessed value.


Some parents say they are more than willing to pay the price for ensuring that their children receive a quality education.


Parent Rosemary Buetikofer believes the teachers deserve a raise. "Our teachers are terrific," said Buetikofer, of Harleysville. "I think they deserve to be paid more in keeping with the other teachers in Montgomery County. I think they have shown that they are worth it."


The 512-member teachers' union is especially focused on improving starting pay - which at $37,323 puts Souderton at the bottom in Montgomery County and among the bottom in the Pennsylvania suburbs.


In reading and math, the district scored well above the state educational targets. For example, in 11th grade, 81 percent of students met the state standard in reading and 74 percent met the standard in math.

But some parents balk at what they believe is a salary proposal that is too high, particularly in tough economic times.


"If you're asking for that kind of increase, you're going to have to walk" the picket line," said parent Ken Killian of Souderton, referring to union demands for a four-year contract with raises of 5.98 percent, 9.40 percent, 7.14 percent, and 6.90 percent. "Nobody's going to give it to you."


Killian's daughter sees both sides.


"I think they deserve a raise," said Katrina Killian, 16, who is going into the 11th grade at Souderton Area High School. "But maybe 4 or 5 percent."


During the strike, Katrina Killian is working at one of four strike day-care programs offered by the Indian Valley Family YMCA in Harleysville. The Y has organized a special program for students at three district elementary schools and the Y's Harleysville location. The cost is $15 per day, per child. The program quickly reached capacity, but officials added staff to accommodate more families.


Outside the high school, where teachers were picketing, four students showed their disappointment. Travis Copenhaver, 14, of Souderton, and three students he was baby-sitting held up their own picket signs.

"My brain is dying, so stop the strike," read one sign.


Baby-sitting is one way that students are occupying their time, while at the same time helping out harried parents.


Karly Warner, a ninth grader at Indian Crest Junior High School in Harleysville, is caring for four children from two families at the home of parents Kristie and Jeffrey Faust in Salford Township.


"I was scrambling," said Kristie Faust, a manager at Merck & Co. in West Point. "But I was fortunate when I learned that Karly was available. It was wonderful for us because I was in a panic for a while."