Columbus school board pushes teachers to prepare for possible strike
Photo by Taylor Dorrell / People's World

COLUMBUS, Ohio—”Developers get handouts, kids get sold out!” rang out from the crowd gathered in front of the office of the Board of Education for Columbus Public schools last Wednesday evening.

Members of the Columbus Education Association (CEA), a union representing more than 4,500 teachers and staff members of Columbus City Schools, have mounted a series of demonstrations this year as tensions have escalated between the union, the school district’s administration, and the city government.

With time running out before the start of a new academic school year in Columbus and negotiations between the union’s membership and school officials stalled, members of the union have called for a vote to recommend a strike. That recommendation could come as soon as August 4.

The union has been negotiating since March for a new contract, but there remain multiple areas of disagreement with the school board. Regina Fuentes, the spokesperson for the CEA and a high school English teacher of 23 years, told People’s World that ensuring functional HVAC systems has been a priority for the union because the faulty ones now in place create unsafe conditions for both students and teachers in the late summer heat and humidity. There’s also the issue of protections for teachers who are assaulted on the job, class size, and understaffing. The lack of substitute staff, critical in mitigating the impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on the education system, has resulted in some full-time teachers taking on excessive workloads.

Critical support staff for the district, including psychologists, nurses, and special education instructors, have been asked to manage unprecedented caseloads while employees tasked with providing critical assistance to the city’s unhoused students recently had their union eligibility revoked by school administrators, a move which the union has described as illegal.

“Why would the District destabilize a department that seeks to stabilize education for our most vulnerable youth? How is that equitable? How does that serve the whole child?” asked Amy Bradley, a Project Connect educator and CEA member.

The rift between teachers and the government officials who oversee education in the city has been worsened by the city’s ongoing policy of granting broad tax abatements that ostensibly encourage real estate development within the city. Operating under the label “Community Reinvestment Areas,” the scheme cost city schools $51 million in funding in 2021 and will result in even larger losses for the school’s budget again this year. The city council met last Monday night and voted to extend the CRA tax abatement program.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther has defended the policy in the past, claiming the tax abatements provide critical stimulus to the city’s development and help create new jobs. He has disputed a County Auditor’s report demonstrating that the tax breaks allow private developers with close ties to city officials to appropriate large portions of the city’s investment in public education for their own use.

Despite these challenging financial conditions, the school board has been anything but sympathetic to the needs of teachers and students.

Both the city government and the Board of Education have so far refused overtures from the teachers’ union to improve conditions within the school system and create long-term solutions to the district’s funding challenges. On Thursday, representatives of the Board of Education delivered what was described as a “final offer” to the CEA before terminating negotiations, increasing the possibility that a strike will commence just as schools are coming back into session.

Photo by Taylor Dorrell / People’s World

“The district has taken the stance of dictating to us rather than negotiating. Their ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ style of bargaining is nothing but bullying. We want a fair contract that gives our students the schools they deserve,” Fuentes said of the last meeting with the school board.

With negotiations stalled, the union will hold a mass meeting with all members on August 4 to get an update and vote on whether the union will announce a ten-day strike notice. The ten-day window will end August 21st when another mass meeting will be held. At this point, the union will make a final decision to strike, which would begin on the 22nd, the same day teachers are scheduled to report to work for the 2022-23 school year.

CEA President John Coneglio called the district’s strategy “a bully[ing] tactic.” He said, “The Board is trying to force us into concessions that will harm our students. CEA will not be intimidated. We will continue to fight for the safe, properly maintained, and fully resourced schools that Columbus students deserve.”

Asked what to do to support the union in its struggle, Fuentes said the best way to show support is to sign the community support petition as a public display of solidarity and to put additional pressure on the board members. Supporters can also help by petitioning the Columbus board members by letter, email, or phone (614-365-8888) to demand that the board returns to the negotiating table.

“We are out here trying to do what’s best for our students,” Fuentes said. “We love our students. We don’t want to strike, but we will do this if it is necessary to create the environments and the resources necessary to make the best situation for our students.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Zach Russell
Zach Russell

Zack Russell writes from Ohio.

David Hill
David Hill

David Hill writes from Ohio.

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