Dayton teachers are ready for a showdown

Nick Green, Sarah Gregg and Ben Ratliffe report from Ohio on a fight by teachers committed to improving their working conditions and students' learning conditions.

UPDATE: Negotiators for the Dayton Education Association and the school board reached a tentative agreement early Thursday. Teachers will discuss the tentative deal and vote on it today, ahead of the Friday deadline for a strike.

Teachers in Dayton, Ohio, stand up for a fair contract (Ohio Education Association | Facebook)Teachers in Dayton, Ohio, stand up for a fair contract (Ohio Education Association | Facebook)

TENSIONS between the Dayton, Ohio, school board and the teachers' union are coming to a head--and could produce the first teachers' strike in 24 years starting this Friday.

With negotiations for a new contract entering their eighth month with little to show, the Dayton Education Association (DEA), which represents more than 1,000 teachers across 33 public schools, is preparing for a walkout if their demands aren't met in time for the new school year.

The DEA began talks with the school board in January, pushing for much-needed improvements to school facilities, working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students. With no resolution in sight by August 1, teachers voted to authorize a strike by a 98.3 percent margin.

To raise awareness of the strike and build solidarity with community and labor allies, DEA held a rally and picnic at Triangle Park near downtown on August 5, complete with hot dogs, bounce houses and sign-making stations where teachers prepared their picket line messages, such as, "Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions."

Meanwhile, the school board was preparing for a walkout, too--with a threat to bring in 600 substitute teachers to try to undermine the union's position in a strike.

What you can do

Support the teachers' struggle by calling Dayton Public Schools at 937-542-3000 and declaring your support for the union's demands for better wages and working conditions.

If you're in the Dayton area, find out how you can support the picket lines at the DEA website. You can sign an online petition in support of a a fair settlement.

Your union can pass a resolution in support of the DEA--get a copy of this resolution by e-mailing [email protected].

The union was at the bargaining table as this article was being written, fighting for the first raise for teachers in four years, improvements in benefits, more support staff and a better (not longer) school day, among other issues. If an agreement isn't reached by August 11, the DEA will put up picket lines, and Dayton teachers will be on strike.

Melanie Larson, an instructional integration specialist of 31 years and member of the DEA negotiation team, described contract negotiations like this: "The feeling among our teachers is that we're fed up. We're tired of the disrespect...We have over 120 hours face-to-face with the [administration], and we're just not making any progress."

Due to the deadlock, a federal mediator has been called in, but talks remain at a standstill. "So the strike vote," explained Melanie, "is adding a sense of urgency."

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THE SCHOOL board has not only refused to budge on the teachers' key demands, but has shown a clear lack of respect throughout the bargaining process. DEA President David Romick gave as an example "a proposal to have us clock in with time clocks...And then in February, in the middle of bargaining, the time clocks installed in every single building right in front of the members."

The board's intransigence at the bargaining table is only one example of the disrespect that Dayton's teachers and students deal with on a regular basis. While salaries for Dayton teachers start out comparable to surrounding districts, by the time teachers reach retirement, they are making as much as $20,000 less per year than their colleagues in similar nearby districts.

This disparity in pay has forced many skilled educators to look elsewhere for work, creating a crisis of teacher turnover--the annual turnover rate is 20 percent in Dayton Public Schools. Last year alone, around 300 teachers left Dayton schools for other districts.

For teachers who have stayed with the district, the overwhelming strike vote is both a show of commitment to their students and community and a demand that this commitment be respected with fair compensation. As Vicki Stewart, a kindergarten teacher at World of Wonder Elementary, explained:

If I didn't care more about students than money, I would have been gone long ago. If you foster a relationship between yourself and the students, these students are going to grow up and want to send their kids to the same district. So we're trying to build respect for the schools in the community as well.

Nicole Gunder, high school language arts instructor, wants the school board to recognize the work that Dayton teachers do to foster relationships with students and their families:

We do a lot more than teach. Our hours are a lot more than the 7.25 [a day] that we get paid for. You can come into any building in the city and find people there two hours before school starts and three to four hours after school ends. I don't think the people on the board realize what a lot of us are sacrificing to make our classrooms work and to help our students succeed.

Involuntary transfers are another issue Dayton teachers are fighting in this contract. Lynda Huggins, who has been with the district for 12 years, worked in four different schools in that last three years. She explained the toll this takes on students: "When [students] have built up a rapport with a teacher they know and love, they should be able to have them there. Even if they are not their teacher, they could still go back and get tutored or just talk to them."

Instead, students watch teachers come and go. Huggins believes students internalize this. "I had to let them know, [teachers] are not leaving because of you," she said. "Everybody loves you."

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IN ADDITION to fighting for fair pay and job stability, the DEA is demanding increased resources and programming to support the success of their students.

In recent years, Dayton has worked to rebrand itself as a home for immigrants and refugees, becoming officially recognized as an "Immigrant Friendly City." But Dayton Public Schools has so far failed to provide adequate resources for immigrant students. One teacher reported being responsible for teaching as many as 70 students across the nine different language groups represented in her school.

In order to provide immigrant students with the same educational opportunities as their U.S.-born peers, Dayton teachers are demanding that Dayton Public Schools fund additional English Language (EL) and English as a Second Language (ESL).

The DEA also wants additional libraries and more guidance counselors to ensure that more students have access to the resources they need.

Over the last few years, numerous Dayton schools shut down their libraries and turned them into computer labs, for the sole purpose of practicing for and administering the high-stakes standardized testing pushed by so-called "education reform." Stewart described the impact of library closures on her students:

Our libraries are closed; they closed them two years ago. That's the last thing that you take away from an urban child...The children don't understand why we pass the school library every day, but we never get to go in and get books. They took the librarians and reassigned them, and they thought the libraries could be better used for computers--you know, working on testing.

Another teacher described how the closure of libraries has increased the workload in other areas:

Having school libraries reduced special education referrals by 50 percent, so now intervention specialists like myself have much higher caseloads of kids who really don't need special education. It's really unfortunate that some kids are only in the resource room because they don't have access to a library or don't have a counselor that can work with them to overcome issues that are preventing them from learning. If I lived in a very troubled or traumatic environment, I wouldn't care about whether or not I can read.

This reflection on the lives of students beyond the classroom is particularly important given the state of the economy in Dayton. Despite a recent upturn in the job market, Dayton is still suffering from the impact of the Great Recession of 2008. By 2010, Dayton had lost 10,000 jobs, with as many as half leaving due to the closure of a General Motors plant.

While the media boast about economic recovery, the kids in Dayton schools have a different story. Stewart says they're "worried about food and shelter. They're worried about parents being in prison. My kindergarteners sometimes come to school with no socks. They have no winter coats sometimes, so what do the teachers do? The teachers reach into their pocket, as well as for supplies and whatever the children need."

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AS TEACHERS at DEA distributed buttons that read, "We don't want to strike, but we will!" negotiations continue. Earlier this week, DEA President Romick told the Dayton Daily News that he expects negotiations to "go down to the wire."

In the meantime, teachers are calling on everyone in the Dayton area and beyond to take a stand for the schools Dayton's children deserve.

The board intends to bring in over 600 substitute teachers in an attempt to break the DEA's resolve. Teachers and supporters should reach these substitutes and explain the importance of the strike in standing up for dignified jobs.

Supporters should also call the Dayton Public Schools Board of Education and tell them they support the teachers' demands for better wages and working conditions--and also sign an online petition demanding that the school board reach a fair settlement.

Union members in Dayton can adopt a picket line and encourage a strong turnout in support. A union resolution in support of the DEA has been circulated around the U.S. by members of the International Socialist Organization--you can get a copy of this resolution by getting in touch with the Columbus ISO via [email protected].

In the era of austerity, it is crucial to support teachers organizing not only for their wages and benefits, but for the resources and opportunities their students need to be successful.

Like other teachers' unions, the DEA's slogan is: Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Dayton teachers are poised to prove the truth of these words once again.

Tim Adams, Jonah ben Avriham, Corbin Kramer, Shayna Mohr, Rachel Reiser, Lacey Ross, Emily Shaw and Grant Stover contributed to this article.