The Somerset Nine: Pennsylvanias Magnificent Seven

What does it take for school board members to be fiscally responsible with taxpayers’ money? For the nine members of the Somerset Area School District (SASD) board of directors, the answer is five years, three strikes, 33 missed school days, seven unfair labor practice charges, and 39 union grievances.

Most school boards in Pennsylvania are simply not—nor should they have to be—willing to engage in such knock-down, drag-out fights with the labor union affiliates of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and the National Education Association (NEA). Few are able to withstand the pressure of the nation’s most powerful labor union, and most end up caving in to unreasonable union demands at the bargaining table.

But like Yul Brynner’s handful of gunslingers in the 1960 film “The Magnificent Seven” who protected a small Mexican village against a larger, more powerful force, the Somerset Nine successfully defended their community from the labor-union “banditos” trying to raise school property taxes. The five-year battle finally ended in March 2005 when union bosses agreed to a contract that will keep salary, health care, and retirement benefit costs from spiraling out of control.

Of course, union officials will attempt to spin its collective bargaining negotiations as a victory for its captive members. But the SASD board effectively thwarted the union’s efforts to continue to leverage lucrative salary and benefits packages out of district taxpayers. The end result is that the community will save between $1.25 and $1.5 million per year over the next decade —the equivalent of 3 to 4 mils in annual property tax increases.

The Somerset school board did this in the face of repeated intimidation tactics and attacks by local, state and national union officials—including a visit by the NEA president and efforts by the PSEA to discourage teachers from working in the district. And as the community begins restoring the strained relationships caused by union strife, the five-year ordeal in Somerset clearly demonstrates the need for substantive labor law reform in the commonwealth.

Indeed, even though the school board fended off the union’s efforts to significantly raise taxes, the board’s necessary concessions at the bargaining table reveal the highly negative financial impact of compulsory unionism in our schools.

For example, the board agreed to $1.45 million in retroactive pay for approximately 210 active and retired teachers—or about $6,900 (before taxes) per employee. This is hardly chump change to pay off union bosses who led three strikes and attempted to hold parents and children as ransom for the 33 days they refused to work.

Yet Somerset taxpayers can find solace in the $1.45 million union buyout because, the SASD agreement is 50 percent less than what the union was demanding last fall. Although no payoff should be necessary, perspective is important. Indeed, thanks to the board’s unwavering commitment to its community, this settlement represents the first time the PSEA union failed to win full retroactive pay for its compulsory members.

One of the biggest sticking points in Somerset’s five-year contract dispute was the issue of who should pay for health care benefits. Under previous contracts, employees paid nothing toward their health care premium costs. In fact, most school boards in the area force district taxpayers to shoulder the entire burden of health care costs.

The new SASD contract, however, requires a 13.5 percent cost-sharing payment by employees for health care benefits. Not only does this help offset taxpayer costs, but it encourages the consumers of taxpayer-provided health care—school employees and their families—to be more cost conscious when utilizing health services. In the long run, this will help control future health care cost increases for both taxpayers and district employees.

Yet despite this cost-controlling victory for taxpayers, the reality is that school employee health benefits continue to exceed those found in the private-sector workplace in Somerset. Add these generous benefits to an average career salary that continues to surpass most working families in the community, and it is clear why the Somerset board members fought so long and hard against the union’s attempt to further raise taxes.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, district taxpayers will save upwards of $15 million relative to the union’s demands over the next ten years. This is obviously good news for the community. But should such savings require five years, three strikes, 33 missed school days, seven unfair labor practice charges, and 39 grievances by the labor union? Of course not.

But the reality is that most school board members in Pennsylvania will continue to give in to financially unsustainable union demands until policymakers in Harrisburg act to dramatically reduce the monopoly power of labor unions in our schools. Only then will more school boards be able to fend off the bargaining-table “banditos”—as did the Somerset Nine.

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Matthew J. Brouillette, a former teacher and public school board member, is president of the Commonwealth Foundation (, a non-partisan, non-profit public policy research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg, PA.