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Barrack Strike Comes to End, With All Eager to Move On

November 19, 2009 By:
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During their "time off," students helped prepare food packages -- in this case, the couscous -- for seniors. Photo by Greg Bezanis
The faculty strike that had shut down the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy for a week ended in the wee hours of Monday morning after teachers and the administration reached a deal on a five-year contract.

All those affected by the strike -- parents, students, teachers and administrators --breathed a collective sigh of relief, and said that they wanted to return to normal as quickly as possible when the school reopened on Tuesday morning.

The standoff between faculty and the administration had grown increasingly bitter, with parents venting frustration and some even threatening to remove their children from the 300-plus student middle and high school if the strike dragged on.

What remains to be seen is just how everyone will be able to put this episode behind them. Both sides said that they were hoping to do so as quickly as possible.

Steven Brown, Barrack's head of school, said that he was anxious to get the school back to normal, and had already met with teachers on Monday afternoon. The faculty seemed equally anxious to return to business as usual.

"I am thrilled this is over, and I can't wait to get back in the classroom tomorrow," Barnett Kamen, one of the lead faculty negotiators who teaches Bible and Jewish studies, as well as coaches the boys basketball team, wrote in an e-mail on Monday.

The 49-member faculty unanimously ratified the accord in a Monday afternoon vote at the school. The board was expected to back the deal later that night.

"This contract provides stability for our students, parents, faculty and school, and at the same time protects the financial integrity of Barrack Hebrew Academy," Brown and board president Ariele Klausner wrote in a statement.

Jared Freedman, a staff representative of the American Federation of Teachers Pennsylvania -- the union that represents the Barrack faculty -- said that both sides reached a compromise on what had been the main sticking point: the school's contributions to the teachers' retirement accounts.

The school had sought to reduce the maximum amount of its contributions from the current 7 percent of a teacher's salary to 3 percent. School officials had argued that the difference would add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of three years.

In the new five-year contract, the maximum percentage would be reduced in the first two years, said Freedman, but he declined to give exact figures. The maximum will be restored to 7 percent for the remaining three years.

He also said that the teachers made out better in salary increases than they would have under the original three-year contract offer.

Freedman did not give details, but said that there would be no raise during the contract's first year.

Brown confirmed those figures but declined to give further details.

"What pushed us to be able to get this done was the tremendous solidarity of the teachers," said Freedman, adding that the teachers feel as if "they are finally recognized -- not because the contract was settled, but because they really know they are appreciated by the parents, the administration and the board."

Barbara Lichtman of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service oversaw the 13-hour bargaining session, which began early on Sunday afternoon and didn't wrap up until 4 a.m. on Monday.

The two sides went back to the negotiating table after parents launched an intense campaign to settle the dispute.

"The alternative to a resolution really could have put the school in a dire situation," said Lenard Cohen, a Barrack parent who helped spearhead the parental effort to bring both sides back to the table.

As late as Nov. 19, it appeared that the strike would last at least through the Thanksgiving vacation.

Frustration the Real Feeling
But events took a sudden turn the next day, when Brown reported to parents that both sides would be meeting with a federal mediator on Sunday.

Parents, frustrated by the lingering strike, had mounted a campaign to pressure all sides to resolve the dispute.

An informal survey of Barrack families taken by parents found that 91 percent of respondents were not happy with the information they had been provided with about the dispute, and 68 percent had mulled sending their children elsewhere.

"As evidenced by the parents' survey, the consequences of not resolving this dispute immediately are dire, and most likely will result in some children being removed from the roster immediately and others in the not too distant future," stated a letter signed by more than 70 parents, and sent to the board and faculty over the weekend.

Cohen said he wasn't sure what role the pressure ultimately played, but noted that the parents now seem to be "very happy as a group," and that his sixth-grade son is glad to return to classes.

Brown said that the administration had been considering contacting a mediator before parents pressed the issue.

"This is going to go down as the great e-mail strike of 2009," he said, referring to the electronic back and forth among parents, teachers and the administration throughout the week.

Too Soon for Winter Break
Few students seemed to be happy about the break. A number of them interviewed said that, while a day or two off from school might have been fun, going more than a week without classes disrupted the flow of the school year.

One senior said that she was anxious because she was waiting for college recommendations from several teachers.

Some semblance of school activity still went on despite the work stoppage. Teachers gave out a fair amount of homework. The boys and girls basketball teams still held practices, albeit at alternate locations. And rehearsals for the school play went on, also off-campus.

And plenty of other extracurricular activities took place that wouldn't normally have transpired on a school night. For example, one mother said that she had taken her daughter and several friends to see last week's midnight premiere of "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" -- the blockbuster vampire flick based on a book series that has been gobbled up by teens.

Students also managed to squeeze in a few good deeds.

On Nov. 20, some 30 students gathered at the Northeast Philadelphia warehouse of the Jewish Relief Agency, an organization that delivers food packages to more than 2,500 families in need each month.

JRA had teamed up with Max & David's, the Elkins Park-based kosher restaurant and catering business that operates the cafeteria for Barrack students.

The idea behind the "Lemons to Lemonade" event was to avoid wasting the perishable food that Barrack students would have eaten if school had been in session. So in this case, packages were made by hand to be given to local seniors. (Both of JRA's administrators happen to also be Barrack parents.)

"I go to JRA almost every month. And what else was I going to do with no school on a Friday," said senior Jackie Drobny, who like many others said that she was anxious to return.

Sophomore Max Gering said on Monday that he was thrilled when he got the news that he'd be going back to school.

"We knew that it wasn't good, and that we probably should be in school," said the teenager.

He noted that many students had sympathized with the teachers. "There really is a bond between students and teachers. Students really do respect their teachers, even though they may not always show it," said Gering.

The boy's mother, Nancy Bell, echoed the view of many parents when she said that she, too, was thrilled to have the dispute settled and her child returning to school.

"If the negotiations resulted in people feeling satisfied, it won't be that hard to put the episode behind us," said Bell. "I think it was critical that they ended it quickly."


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