With just days remaining before the contract between the Reynoldsburg school district and its teachers expires July 31, the two sides appear far apart on reaching another agreement.
Negotiating teams from both sides are scheduled to meet with a federal mediator Aug. 4 and 5.
Reynoldsburg schools Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning said she is encouraging district negotiators to "stand firm" on a contract offer to the Reynoldsburg Education Association that she says is about attracting and rewarding talented teachers, not about saving money.
Members of the REA -- the union representing teachers -- couldn't disagree more. They say the proposal is why so many teachers and administrators are leaving Reynoldsburg for jobs elsewhere.
Although buoyed by an "amazing" show of support last week when more than 500 people attended a Reynoldsburg school board meeting, two of those who will leave the district Aug. 1 are REA spokeswoman Gina Daniels and REA Co-President David Schottner.
Co-President Kim Cooper will become the organization's sole president and Kathy Evans will assume Daniels' duties.
"I'm going to Licking Heights, partly because I live there, but with the contract proposal added, I felt it was time for a change," Daniels said. "Many of the teachers resigning were looking for jobs before the contract proposal was published.
"I believe that the working conditions -- large class sizes and lack of teacher planning time -- may have pushed many teachers away. We just don't feel supported."
Daniels said she is taking a pay cut to leave, as are some of the other resigning teachers.
Schottner said he is leaving "a school district that I love, but sadly, one in which I have always felt like a second-class citizen."
School board member Joseph Begeny, who is a teacher with Columbus City Schools, said at the July 15 meeting the community should understand that the proposed teacher contract "was not voted on by the board."
He believes the contract offer on the table is affecting the number of employees leaving Reynoldsburg.
"Look at the number of teachers and administrators leaving," Begeny said. "While not all are leaving as a direct result of the negotiating committee's proposal, the turnover rate is significantly higher than the last three years combined. That tells me that something is wrong."
The district wants to eliminate current salary schedules and step raises in favor of a merit pay system that bases teachers' salaries on evaluation scores and on student performance. The district also wants to eliminate all group health insurance in favor of paying teachers cash amounts to purchase health-care coverage through the new Affordable Care Act.
Under the Reynoldsburg school plan, and using the state's new teacher-evaluation system, teachers who are rated as "accomplished" -- the highest overall rating -- would be in line for a 4-percent raise.
"Skilled" teachers would get raises of 2 percent and "developing" teachers would earn a 1-percent increase. Teachers rated in the lowest category, "ineffective," would not get a pay bump.
The merit pay system would mean even more "teaching to the test," Daniels said.
"No one has a system like Reynoldsburg is proposing," she said.
That system may be causing teachers to leave in droves, Daniels said.
She said the number of teacher resignations -- 50 since January, compared to 28 last year -- reflects the lack of satisfaction with working conditions in Reynoldsburg schools.
However, Thomas-Manning said teachers are still interested in coming to Reynoldsburg, despite the contract negotiations. Of the 45 people hired this summer, only one person said later he couldn't take the job.
The district has studied merit pay for three years and has included REA members in the discussion. More than 20 volunteered to participate in a two-year merit-pay pilot program, and hundreds have received a "student incentive award" based on student performance, for the past 10 years.
"We would like to have merit pay in this district," Thomas-Manning said. "We would like to have it now. ... It is time to put our money where our mouths are."
She noted that one talented veteran teacher resigned in the spring because he was offered a job at a neighboring district and she could "do nothing" to keep him.
With a flexible pay structure not based on years of service, she could have offered the teacher more money to remain in Reynoldsburg, she said.
"We should be able to differentiate and pay excellent teachers so we can hang on to them," Thomas-Manning said.
The school board meeting July 15 drew teachers from about a half-dozen other districts who are watching what is happening in Reynoldsburg, Daniels said.
"We were all in awe about how much support we had," she said. "We were so grateful and in shock to see so much support. This issue has rallied the community behind the teachers and the turnout brought tears to our eyes."
Columbus Dispatch reporter Charlie Boss contributed to this story.