CLEVELAND – Hundreds of angry Cleveland public school teachers demonstrated for several hours outside the downtown office of the Cleveland Municipal School District May 26. They wore union T-shirts carrying the statement, “I don’t want to strike but I will!” to voice frustration over mounting unresolved grievances as they seek a new contract.
Shari Obrenski, director of negotiations for the Cleveland Teachers Union (AFT Local 279) and a teacher at Jane Addams High School, said that 97 percent of the union’s 4,500 members voted last month to strike when school resumes in the fall unless agreement on a new contract is reached.
Many of the problems stem from the policy of over-testing mandated by the state, she said. She said the testing distorts the entire education process, including depriving children of electives, career training , support staff and even libraries, as well as interfering with fair teacher evaluation and salaries of para-professional staff.
“Continual testing is like, if you are overweight, and, instead of addressing the problem, you keep buying new scales,” one teacher said. “They don’t want to face up to the real problem of poverty and generations of structural inequality.”
The District has adopted a “site-based budgeting” system, allocating funds to each school based on enrollment and leaving funding decisions up to principals. Under pressure to get good test scores and avoid administrative takeover, principals often make arbitrary decisions that can have a serious impact on the children.
“Over the past two years 12 high school libraries were closed and elementary school libraries are now open only half a day,” said one of the few remaining school librarians, asking that her name not be used because she feared retaliation. “The principals say libraries don’t raise test scores.”
Another serious concern is the restraints on wages for support staff, including nurses, psychologists and paraprofessionals, who assist teachers in classrooms and provide individual attention to students. “Paraprofessionals cannot earn more than $13 an hour and substitutes earn less than $9,” Obrenski said. “These people are critical to public education. They need a living wage.”
It was a bright sunny spring day, the last full day of the school year for the teachers and they were in a boisterous, militant mood, singing labor songs and chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho. All this testing has to go” and “”When educators are under attack, What do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
They cheered loudly as public officials and labor leaders took the mike to offer encouragement. This included Cleveland city councilman, Brian Kazy and State Sen. Mike Skindell whose districts include the homes of many teachers, John Ryan, representing U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore (Cleveland) AFL-CIO.
The demonstrators were also buoyed by drivers in the rush hour traffic who honked horns and raised fists in solidarity. Many teachers voiced hope that issues can be resolved and contract talks, currently on hold, will resume over the summer.
Photo: CTU 279 Facebook page