Columbus schools, teachers continue to negotiate as strike planning begins

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Progress was made, but more than 11 hours of negotiations Thursday still couldn’t bring Columbus City Schools and its teachers union to a new contract agreement.

That means talks about a deal will be put on hold for about a month, and conversations about strike plans could start ramping up.

“It was a long day, but it was productive,” Columbus Education Association President John Coneglio told The Dispatch on Friday. “We’re willing to work hard for our members and keep plugging away.”

Columbus City Schools spokesman Scott Wortman added that “both sides continue to bargain in good faith.”

Negotiations will resume after July 15, following a 45-day “cooling off period” mandated by the current CEA contract. Technically, that cooling off period had already taken effect when both sides met on Thursday, but they decided to forgo the rule, Coneglio said.

That leaves about a month for negotiations to reach a deal before the union’s current contract expires Aug. 18, the day before the 2019-20 school year begins with teachers’ professional development days. Students report to classes Aug. 22.

In the meantime, district administrators are expected to begin strike contingency planning with Huffmaster, a Michigan-based agency that “assists with all aspects of workforce management, including contingency planning, replacement personnel and security,” according to its website. Their first meeting hasn’t been set, Wortman said.

The Columbus Board of Education entered into a contract with the company last Tuesday.

Ideally, board members of the state’s largest school district, which enrolls about 50,000 students, have said they hope the services are unneeded.

In May, the CEA, which represents more than 4,000 district teachers, nurses, counselors and social workers, authorized its negotiators to give a 10-day strike notice if an agreement can’t be reached over the summer for a new contract.

When asked if a strike was any more likely after Thursday’s meeting, Coneglio said the union “is prepared to use all its tools to negotiate a contract that’s good for the schools that Columbus students deserve.”

Historically, strikes are rare in central Ohio. Columbus teachers have gone on strike only once before — in 1975.

Statewide, just nine of more than 700 unions represented by the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, have gone on strike since 2005, President Becky Higgins said. That includes just one local district, Reynoldsburg, in September 2014. The Columbus Education Association is an affiliate of the state group.

Before 2014, there were strikes at Groveport Madison Schools in 1989; Westerville, Reynoldsburg and Whitehall schools in 1978; and Hamilton Local Schools in 1973.

In 1983, Ohio passed a law giving public employees, such as teachers, the right to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions and, in some cases, to strike. The move effectively ended an era of walkouts in the 1970s that, up until that point, had been illegal. The law also requires a 10-day notice before a strike occurs.

But there’s been a wave of teacher activism more recently, sparked by the walkout of 22,000 teachers in West Virginia in February 2018 that resulted in an immediate 5% pay increase. That has triggered strikes and walkouts since then in states such as Arizona, California, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

No local union takes going on strike lightly, Higgins said.

“They’ll do everything they can before they would ever issue that strike notice,” she said. “But sometimes it’s necessary because they’re advocating for what’s best for their students.”

The CEA’s list of demands includes: awarding better pay; reducing class sizes; emphasizing art, music and physical education in schools; expanding alternative student discipline programs; and ending lengthy property tax abatements to wealthy corporations.

A loss of instructional days can significantly impact students as well as their families, Higgins said.

The Columbus Board of Education has assured parents that schools will remain open in the event of a strike because of Huffmaster’s services.

The company, which has worked with several other Ohio districts during negotiations and strikes, typically posts positions online and recruits statewide, sometimes nationally, said Tom Ash, director of governmental relations for the Buckeye Association of School Superintendents. Some of the substitute hires are bused in and housed in hotels, he said. Huffmaster is responsible for the background checks and can also provide security personnel.

It’s a process, Ash said, that requires plenty of planning.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean each absent teacher is replaced by a substitute. In 2014, Reynoldsburg employed about 350 teachers and received about half that many substitutes every day, said school board President Joe Begeny, the only current board member who served that year.

The district paid Huffmaster roughly $1.39 million for its services during the 15-day strike, Treasurer Tammira Miller said.

Huffmaster did not return a phone call or emails seeking comment last week.

When about 180 teachers in the Louisville City Schools, near Canton, went on strike for 28 days in 2016, an average of 141 substitutes worked daily, according to The Canton Repository. The district paid Huffmaster about $907,000.

Begeny, who also teaches in Columbus City Schools, voted against using Huffmaster in Reynoldsburg. He said safety concerns, including a lawsuit filed by a parent asking to close the schools after a fight broke out, were ultimately what pushed the strike toward a resolution.

“Columbus City Schools has 50,000 students and 4,000 teachers,” he said. “I’m curious how that’s going to work if the worst-case scenario happens.”

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@AlissaWidman