UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio — Votes from the teachers’ union were still being collected this week on a “last, best and final” contract offer the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school board authorized Sept. 29, citing an impasse in negotiations dating back to August.
Cleveland Heights Teachers Union President Karen Rego said Saturday (Oct. 4) that the roughly 500 members were still voting on whether to accept that offer or reject it and authorize the AFT-Local 795 executive board to strike.
“We won’t have a tally of our contract vote until Oct. 6 after all the ballots have been counted,” Rego explained earlier. “Until we have that final count we do not have any further action.”
School district officials pointed out that a formal 10-day notice of intent to strike must be provided in advance by the union.
At the same time, both sides have already shown willingness to return to negotiations.
“We are under a continued duty to bargain,” CH-UH school board president Jodi Sourini said Friday after tearfully introducing earlier in the week the resolution declaring an “ultimate impasse” in negotiations and authorizing the district to implement the one-year contract.
District officials said they already met with teachers’ union representatives to discuss the implications after the school board vote.
“At the union’s request, the district has also indicated it is willing to meet with the bargaining teams and federal mediator early next month,” CH-UH officials said Friday (Oct. 2)
Rego said the union has communicated often with its members, keeping them updated on the pending “implementation” that the school board unanimously authorized.
“They are well-informed of what the board’s offer is and what their vote means to accept or reject that offer,” Rego said. “We want to continue negotiations. The goal is to get back to the table and get this settled. We want a fair contract.”
And after nearly 60 hours of negotiations from June 11 through August 19, including the use of a federal mediator beginning in July after the previous one-year teachers’ contract expired June 30, Sourini and the school board maintain that a “fair, equitable and competitive” contract is what has been put forth.
The proposed contract offers no pay raises, other than graduated salary steps based on experience that the school board decided to keep in place, although a recent ruling from the State Employee Relations Board did not require the district to do so, at an estimated additional cost of $500,000 a year.
That cost is effectively cancelled out by the elimination of a 1 percent pickup by the district into individual State Teachers Retirement System accounts, a practice that had been in effect since 2013 that results in savings of $500,000 a year, CH-UH Schools’ Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer Scott Gainer noted.
Another point of contention has been a proposed increase in health care premiums, from the current 6 percent, which Sourini said is “out of line with any comparable district.”
The new contract would more than double that figure, calling for a 15 percent contribution, which would save district taxpayers $1.1 million a year on the teachers’ end.
Factor in the roughly 300 additional employees in the district who would also be covered under the new health premium payment plan, and those potential savings could increase another $500,000 to $1.6 million annually, Gainer said.
The new health plan also includes some co-pays and deductibles where there were none before, resulting in close to another $1 million in savings, Gainer added.
Combined savings are expected to add up to over $2.5 million annually, although Gainer pointed out that those amounts would be less in the first year, since the higher premiums and “plan design changes (co-pays and deductibles)” would not kick in until January and would only cover the second half of the 2020-21 school year and budget.
Even with the delay, “these changes would be more palatable if they were phased in,” CH-UH school board member Dan Heintz said prior to the Sept. 29 vote. “But that’s a luxury we cannot afford.”
School board vice president Jim Posch noted that the proposal does not cut spousal coverage.
“During this pandemic we simply didn’t want to impact our staff’s family members in that way,” Posch said.
As for the lack of a pay raise this time around ( teachers received a 2 percent salary increase in the 2019-20 contract) Posch said that “our community is faced with record unemployment and most people I know — those who are still working — have had to take pay cuts this year.”
In a statement issued by the district last week, officials argued that the teachers’ expired contract provides competitive salaries relative to others in the area, with new hires earning a starting base of $44,529, compared with $48,075 in Shaker Heights and just under $42,000 in the Maple Heights and Strongsville districts.
In the middle of it all is a 4.8-mill operating levy on the November ballot, a reduction from the 7.9 mill proposal that lost by 600 votes in the spring.
If the levy passes, raising about $5.3 million a year, district officials point out that they are still losing as much as $9 million this year to EdChoice private tuition vouchers, based on the current state formula.
“Neither one of these things alone (the levy or the new contract) would solve the deficit issue,” Sourini said, adding that the district continues to advocate for EdChoice relief at the state level. “And even together, it’s still not enough. We need meaningful collaboration from everyone right now.”
Saying that the “numbers are irrefutable,” CH-UH school board member Malia Lewis hopes the teachers’ union can help face the reality of the district’s financial plight.
“I recognize that teachers are working harder now and under much more difficult circumstances than ever before,” Lewis said Sept. 29. “Several parents have told me how much they appreciate the extra efforts teachers are making to reach out through the computer screen to their students, and I am grateful for their adaptability and professionalism.”
At the same time, Lewis said she felt that the many negotiating sessions she attended over the summer “seemed decidedly one-sided. Too many times I heard ‘we are not interested’ in response to proposals.”
Rego said over the weekend that the teachers’ union doesn’t have its version of a “last, best offer,” although district officials contend that the most recent proposal would have cost taxpayers an additional $1 million.
Who’s grandfathered in?
In terms of feedback so far from the community, there appears to be a potential misunderstanding with the use of the term “grandfathered” in at least one section of the proposed contract dealing with health care coverage, CH-UH Supervisor of Communications Cathan Cavanaugh noted.
Here, the “grandfathered” and “non-grandfathered” references apply only to the federal Affordable Care Act, and not to the proposed contract applying only to new employees in the district, Gainer explained.
“The ultimate goal here is to get everyone — current and future employees — under the same plan,” Sourini said, adding that the district is self-insured through Medical Mutual.
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