New contract ends Ohio teachers’ strike

October 15, 2014

Haley Swenson reports on the outcome of a teachers' strike in Reynoldsburg.

TEACHERS IN the Reynoldsburg school district in central Ohio returned to their classrooms October 13 after 15 school days on the picket lines, as the first teachers' strike in the area in 25 years came to an end.

Four days earlier, members of the Reynoldsburg Education Association (REA) voted by a 75 percent margin to approve a tentative agreement brought to them by their negotiating team.

The contract includes new language on class size, one of the biggest issues for teachers, who say swollen classrooms are a big part of the reason for the annual turnover rate of 20 percent. The agreement moves away from setting class sizes based on a ratio of students-to-teachers in the school--a practice that has allowed the district to get away with hiring fewer and fewer teachers while class sizes rise.

Instead, the contract sets "aspirational goals" at different grade levels, ranging from 25 for Kindergarten through 4th grade, up to 35 for grades 9-12 for different grade levels. This is an improvement over the previous contract, but these still aren't hard caps--so the district has ways to get around them.

Reynoldsburg teachers on the picket line
Reynoldsburg teachers on the picket line

The deal also includes raises in teachers' base pay--around 80 percent of teachers and other staff covered under the contract are eligible for about an average 4 percent pay increase over the next three years. But the agreement also includes provisions for several competitive, merit-pay bonuses and awards, which the union says will hurt the spirit of collaboration between teachers.

While the agreement mainly holds the line on other issues, there are other disappointments for teachers--contributions for health coverage will creep up in the second and third year of the agreement, for example.

There was a variety of opinions about the contract among teachers. One science teacher who asked to remain anonymous was among those who voted to approve the contract, even while acknowledging that it had many problems.

"I wouldn't say that any of us are happy," the teacher said. "There was really no easy decision. But for so long, we've been going in the wrong direction, and this strike was about stopping that movement and turning in a new direction."

On the other hand, Sherri Wellington, a special educator at Bell Academy, felt the union settled too hastily and didn't win as much as it could have. "I think with one more week we could have gotten what we needed," said Wellington, who was one of 80 teachers who voted to reject the agreement. Wellington said she didn't want to criticize or blame the negotiating team, but did say that she felt a big disconnect between what the leadership was conveying during the strike, and how it ended.

WITH TEACHERS unions around the country facing the question of whether and how to resist corporate education reform, the Reynoldsburg strike offered a glimpse into what kind of fightback is possible, particularly with strong community alliances. But it also highlighted the challenges, even when teachers are willing to strike, in the current context.

The strike began on September 19 after teachers spent the summer and the first weeks of school without a contract. As reported previously, the board proposed a radical new contract that attacked teachers' health care, pay and planning time, and introduced the new merit pay proposals, based on student scores from high-stakes standardized testing.

The first days of the strike built the confidence of the teachers, as many students and parents joined them on the picket lines. Hundreds from Reynoldsburg and elsewhere came to a weekend rally to support the strike.

As stories about conditions inside the still-opened schools began to emerge, the community seemed to become further united around the teachers. The schools were staffed by employees of the private company Huffmaster. Some were bussed in through the picket lines to be substitute teachers. Others served as security guards, keeping the media and teachers off school property, while using a heavy hand to maintain order in the under-staffed classrooms.

With tales of police brutality against students inside schools and pictures of sleeping substitutes posted on social media, the urgency to end the strike increased. Despite widespread support in the face of the district's and Huffmaster's incompetence, in the first negotiations during the strike, the board's representatives showed no signs of bending or moving. The REA negotiating team left the talks with no new proposal to present to teachers.

During the second week of the strike, a Reynoldsburg parent sympathetic to the teachers filed a lawsuit to force the district to close the schools during the walkout on the grounds that they were unsafe and incapable of facilitating student learning. In an unprecedented move, the judge in the case refused to close the schools, but ordered the union, the school board and the parent who brought the lawsuit to begin meeting with a federal mediator until an agreement was reached.

Some teachers saw this as positive for the strike because it forced the board, which seemed increasingly impervious to public opinion and all forms of pressure, to return to the negotiating table.

But the judge also instituted a gag order on negotiations. This meant that not only could the board not continue leaking information about negotiations, as it had been doing since the summer, but the REA negotiating team was barred from reporting back to rank-and-file members about negotiations, until they had reached a tentative agreement. Each day, teachers returned to the picket lines without any clear sense of where the talks were at or whether any progress was being made--a difficult situation as they began their third week without income, and the temperatures dropped and rainstorms set in.

Negotiations continued until October 8, when the REA negotiating team presented the tentative agreement to members.

AT A meeting to discuss and vote on the tentative agreement, there was a lot of discussion about whether teachers had won as much as they could.

For instance, the science teacher quoted above stressed the stubbornness of the school board, which seemed completely unwilling to budget on any of its goals of implementing the corporate school reform agenda. Thus, what was achieved in the contract stands out as an accomplishment, given the tough conditions.

But Sherri Wellington pointed out that community support for the teachers was strong throughout the strike. Talking about the union meeting where the agreement was discussed, she said, "I asked what we were supposed to tell the people who had been supporting us, who had been standing by us, about this contract. And I was told we wouldn't be able to get anything until we had a new school board and a new superintendent."

Wellington says she's confident that if the union had held out for another week, the board would have been forced to make more concessions. For one thing, she noted, parents had become more organized as the strike went on.

Additionally, another pending lawsuit appeared to be putting more pressure on the board and district Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning. Parents of students with special educational needs were preparing to sue the school district for failing to meet their students' Individualized Education Program during the strike--something required under federal law. Many hoped that a class-action lawsuit against the district would make it too costly to keep the schools open with under-qualified and overstretched substitute teachers and would add to the urgency to bring the teachers back.

For Wellington, a teacher with 30 years of experience, the strike was difficult, but also transformative. As she said:

I had no idea how political public education had become, how political the school board is. Only one of the school board members has any affiliation with public education. There are political agendas being pushed on our schools...Finally, people will understand what we've been dealing with for years, being told again and again we have to make do with less, no matter how that affects our students.

Teachers on both sides of the vote seemed to agree that the fight to protect public education was just beginning--and that going after sitting school board members in the next election was going to be a big step in moving forward. Time and again, the board showed that it was acting with no input from the community or from teachers, and that it was unresponsive to intense pressure.

The science teacher stressed that there are ways to fight in the future to prepare for the next struggle:

I think some of the teachers who are upset about the agreement expected leaps and bounds. But in five previous contract negotiations, we were never able to get the board to budge on the language it had on class sizes. I really see the value in what we did change.

Our union is a little splintered right now and that concerns me. But there is a core group of parents and teachers collaborating to bring long-term change, and that will be essential--that we continue to stand in solidarity.

The first such stand came soon after the agreement was reached. The day after teachers met and ratified the contract, as they moved back into their classrooms in preparation for the first day back, the REA held a press conference to draw attention to the district's failure to pay teachers for six days they worked prior to the strike--money they expected to receive on returning to work. REA leaders rightly called this "wage theft." Under pressure, the district quickly announced a plan to pay teachers, though on its own timeline.

With the school district leadership showing no sign that it will stop acting unilaterally and with hostility toward teachers any time soon, the REA will have to "stand in solidarity"--and prepare for the next round.

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