Columbus Board of Education forces teachers to strike days before school starts
Columbus students do a banner drop on the Broad Street bridge to show solidarity with their striking teachers. | Taylor Dorrell / People's World

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Teachers in Ohio’s biggest school district are now on strike. In an overwhelming show of solidarity and determination, 94% of members of the Columbus Education Association (CEA), the union that represents over 4,500 teachers and staff of Columbus City schools, voted in favor of a strike during a dramatic mass meeting of CEA members held Sunday night.

Thus, after many months of failed negotiations with the Columbus Board of Education, the strike officially commenced at 12:01 AM on Monday, Aug. 22. This is the first time teachers in Columbus City Schools have gone on strike since 1975.

Columbus students unfurled multiple large banners from the side of the Broad Street bridge near City Hall as part of a demonstration in support of the teachers Monday evening, the first day of the strike. The banners read, “FUND OUR SCHOOLS” and “STUDENTS DESERVE BETTER.” The union has consistently demonstrated an ability to mobilize its membership and its public supporters for public demonstrations.

At Monday night’s Columbus Crew game, fans flew a flag reading, “I support Columbus teachers,” and spoke through megaphones in support of CEA. The collective of Crew fans called Nordecke voiced support for the union, saying, “Every child deserves a high-quality education.”

Open conflict between teachers and the Board of Education was not the union’s ideal beginning to the 2022-23 school year. Union representatives have been at the bargaining table since March, working to negotiate a new contract with the Board ahead of the previous contract’s Aug. 21, 2022, expiration date. With no agreement in sight, a full district-wide strike was the only remaining option after the union rejected the Board’s “last best final offer.”

Functioning HVAC systems for every school building have been a major flash point in the negotiations. With temperatures reaching into the 90s again this week, teachers say that the Board’s failure to address excessive summer heat and humidity in Columbus classrooms creates learning conditions that are not only uncomfortable and distracting, but potentially unsafe. While the board claims that it has committed funds towards fixing aging HVAC systems, CEA members have insisted that binding language be added to the union’s contract with the schools. Board representatives have not been willing to make that commitment.

The union also alleges that the district has engaged in illegal labor practices by revoking union eligibility and reassigning staff from Project Connect, a program which removes barriers and advocates for unhoused students. This move strips protections and cuts pay of educators connecting students with individualized resources in a system designed with the assumption that all students have permanent addresses.

Amy Bradley, a Project Connect educator and CEA member, asked, “Why would the District destabilize a department that seeks to stabilize education for our most vulnerable youth?” The union has filed charges with the State Employment Relations Board against Columbus City Schools.

In a series of recent meetings with CEA representatives, the Board of Education has made a number of baffling moves, issuing multiple “final offers,” walking out of or refusing meetings with the CEA, and filing unfair labor practice charges against the CEA alleging the union has misrepresented the Board while at the same time portraying teachers as the instigators of the impasse in its own statements to the media.

One particularly juvenile moment involved a representative of the district insisting to local media that an offer to the CEA entitled “Final Offer” was not in fact the “final, final offer.” The CEA is frustrated. “We need the district to come fairly, we need the district to come to us with the best interest of students in mind, and stop playing these little games that they know hurt everyone in the long run,” CEA spokeswoman Regina Fuentes said in a recent interview.

National economic issues have also made their mark on the negotiations. With inflation surpassing 9% in recent months, teachers have sought to guarantee an 8% salary increase at each step of the district’s pay scale. The Board initially responded with an offer of 2.5%, which was later revised to 3% plus an additional $2,000 one-time retention bonus. The union has thus far declined to accept an offer far short of its goals in a district where the starting teacher’s salary is a measly $36,344.

Anger over pay comes at a time when the district has bolstered its administrative staff by nearly 100 employees who are not members of the union and do not teach in classrooms. A recent report published by Columbus Free Press claimed that many of the newly added positions pay over $100,000 annually, with a benefits system far more generous than that enjoyed by CEA members.

Much of this administrative buildup has come under the tenure of Superintendent Dr. Talisa Dixon, who herself is paid an annual salary of $262,000, along with a monthly transportation and technology stipend and 35 vacation days per school year.

District administrators have so far insisted that the start of classes will go ahead as scheduled on Aug. 24. The current plan is to have the district’s 600 non-union substitutes administer virtual instruction in place of the more than 4,500 full-time teachers out on strike. With the impact of disruptions to in-person learning caused by COVID-19 fresh in the minds of the community, parents are understandably distressed by the ongoing conflict between teachers and the district administrators.

On the eve of the strike, Columbus School teacher Jonathan Walsh had a message of optimism and determination: “Schools are where all of America’s problems rise to the surface, but they can also be where the solutions begin.” As workers prepare to once again march the streets of Columbus this Labor Day, an entire community watches and waits for real solutions to emerge.


CONTRIBUTOR

David Hill
David Hill

David Hill writes from Ohio.

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