Teachers' walkout has Ohio community mobilized, divided


MAPLE HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Five-year-old Robin Bearss has been in kindergarten only a month, and already she has had lessons in labor relations.

When her parents walk her to school at Rockside Elementary -- which happens to be next door -- she always wants to stop at the picket line to talk to her teacher.

"What's a scab?" she asked her father after hearing striking teachers yell at the substitutes showing up to replace them. To her, a scab was what someone gets after scraping a knee.

The teachers' strike here was 13 days old Friday, and there's no sign of progress, just mounting venom. Robin and her classmates have had a substitute longer than a regular teacher.

Ohio is one of 17 states that allow teachers to strike. But in Maryland, the most drastic option for teachers unhappy with their pay and work requirements is to follow the letter of the contract and relinquish extracurricular duties. That is what happened in Carroll County last week, where a breakdown in contract negotiations prompted teachers in several schools to stage a "work to rule" protest, the first of its type in 20 years in the county.

While Carroll parents have had to pitch in as chaperones at dances and take tickets at games, the effect on students is minimal compared with that on kids in this blue-collar Cleveland suburb, which has a population of 28,000 and is known for its sprawling network of strip malls.

On Sept. 4, a week into the school year, the district's 235 teachers took to the picket lines to demand more generous pay and other improvements such as limits on class size and the number of courses they have to teach.

Robin's father, Robert, supports the teachers' demands, and a sign in his front yard says so, but he's starting to worry that talks have broken off.

"I don't want my daughter to get behind," he said Friday.

The union wants 6 percent raises this year and 5 percent next year on top of experience-scale increases. The school district has offered 3 percent raises this year and 3.5 percent next year in addition to the longevity increases, saying it can't afford the union's demand. Teachers made an average of $39,000 under the old contract, the lowest average wage in Cuyahoga County.

What seemed at first to be about salary and hours has morphed into something more difficult to negotiate, the rhetoric laced with words such as "disrespect" and "professionalism." The strike, the district's first since 1973, has mobilized and divided the adults in the community.

Meanwhile, the district's nearly 4,000 students continue to be taught by more than 200 substitute teachers who are rotated every week or so to get around a state rule limiting the number of days a student can be taught by a teacher without full-time certification. Sports teams continue to play.

When contract negotiations broke down this month, the district immediately began hiring the substitute teachers, as well as security guards to keep order -- but the first days were chaotic. Students wandered the halls, watched TV and left school when they wanted. At one school, a group of kids smashed a television by pushing it off its cart and down the stairs. In one middle school classroom, the TV was tuned to The Jerry Springer Show.

The grown-ups have weighed in with rowdy displays too. Teachers staged a protest outside the school board president's home. On Friday, about 90 teachers walked laps in front of school board headquarters, holding "Settle Now" signs.

Parents, angry that the school board canceled its meeting Thursday night after saying there was nothing to discuss, organized a mock board meeting in a bingo hall and circulated petitions to oust the five board members. Parent organizer Jerry Strothers is urging students to stay home from school tomorrow.

"We, the parents and kids, are going on strike Monday," he said. "The school board is acting like everything's OK, and it's not. We have proficiency tests coming up, and these kids are not prepared."

A section of a Web site that Strothers and another parent have devoted to the controversy lists the names of 30 substitutes hired to replace striking teachers. "Thanks scabs for making our life horrific" it says below a teachers association logo.

The school board took the striking teachers to court to stop them from blocking traffic. A judge issued a temporary restraining order, a copy of which is posted at strike locations, limiting to four the number of pickets at each entrance and prohibiting teachers from harassing people driving in and out of school driveways.

Outside the high school Friday, security guards watched and questioned strangers as teachers sat in groups of three or four in folding chairs on the school's perimeter. Students emerged, declaring that they're wasting their time and want their teachers back.

"It's pointless," said Kim Smith, a senior who said she did nothing all day Friday except, in one business class, check the computer for tips on how to write a resume.

In chemistry class, students are learning the same formula day after day, said Purnell Sweeney, 17, a middle linebacker on the football team. "The substitutes are trying to teach, but we're not learning anything. I actually miss learning.

"People are just leaving when they want to. They've stepped up security, but there are so many doors and not all of them have cameras."

Despite the efforts of a federal mediator, the only thing the two sides seem to agree on is that the standoff is not just about money.

"It's become an emotional issue rather than a financial issue," said Henry Rish, the district's superintendent. "They're saying, 'Get rid of the school board, get rid of the superintendent, get rid of the lawyers.' But nothing's going to change the fact that we don't have any money."

Twice this year, he noted, district voters defeated proposed tax increases.

Teachers say that whatever raises they might have received in negotiations have been wiped out with the 13 school days they've been out of work.

"The disrespect the administration has for teachers is absolutely incredible," said Francine Mangoni, 61, a high school business teacher.

Nobody has an answer as to what's next. Both sides say the other side had its chance and refused to act.

"We're going one day at a time," said the teacher association's president, Toni Bednarik. "This is a Board of Education that has run the district for many years without regard to parents and teachers, and most importantly, without regard to the stability of the staff.

"The anger in this city has been brought to a head."

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