Reynoldsburg students headed back to class this week with teachers considering whether to strike and Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning promising that schools will remain open even if members of the Reynoldsburg Education Association hit the picket lines.
Students returned to school Wednesday, Aug. 13. The first teacher workday of the 2014-15 school year was Monday, Aug. 11, three days after REA members voted Aug. 8 to authorize a 10-day strike notice.
The contract between the district and the union representing teachers expired July 31. Both sides met with a federal mediator in negotiating sessions Aug. 4 and 5.
REA spokeswoman Kathy Evans said issuing the notice means the union could file a "notice of intent to strike and picket" with the State Employment Relations Board at any time.
She said last week's vote was one of confidence in the REA negotiating team.
"We don't want to strike, but our students, community and teachers deserve a contract that invests in classroom priorities and builds a strong foundation for student learning," she said.
Likewise, Thomas-Manning -- who is in her first year as superintendent and who helped write the contract proposal offered by the district -- said school administrators don't want to see a strike.
"We certainly hope that it does not come to a strike, but if it does, our schools will remain open," she said. "We will make the necessary preparations to ensure the least disruption as possible for our students."
However, both sides offered differing views on the progress made in talks with the federal mediator.
Evans said questions about student learning conditions, class sizes and the compensation package remain unresolved.
The district proposed a merit pay salary schedule based on how students perform on state tests and on teachers' scores under the new state evaluation system.
Evans said the district is "placing too much emphasis on high-stakes testing and our students will suffer as a result."
"The state evaluation tool, OTES (Ohio Teachers Evaluation System), is very new and the state will be administering a new type of state teachers' assessment next year," she said.
She said the fact the district also wanted teachers to drop group insurance and receive a flat fee to purchase health insurance coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act is also "very disappointing."
"It does not help Reynoldsburg be competitive with other districts, making it more difficult to retain and recruit excellent teachers," she said.
Tricia Moore, district director of shared services and partnerships, said the REA's authorization to issue a strike notice was "disappointing news," especially since an extended, 20-hour negotiating session ended at 2 a.m. Aug. 6 "with a handshake and conceptual agreement on issues of compensation, insurance, class sizes and planning time."
Moore said members of the district negotiating team made a number of concessions in last week's negotiations, agreeing to preserve the current salary schedule, to provide a 2-percent cost-of-living increase in year one and a 1.7-percent cost-of-living increase in year two of the contract.
She said additional compensation would be based on teachers' ratings -- 3-percent for teachers rated "accomplished" under the OTES; 2-percent for teachers rated "skilled" and 1-percent for teachers rated "developing."
She said awards would double under the proposed contract for outstanding performance in the classroom, introducing a fellowship worth $4,000 "for teachers who go above and beyond."
The district also agreed to reopen negotiations before the third year of the contract, Moore said.
A compromise had also been reached on insurance coverage, Moore reported on the district website, to "maintain the high-quality plan provided by the board of education but converting employees' share of the cost to a percentage rate (10 percent), rather than a flat amount."
Evans said teachers want a firm cap on class sizes, which the district has failed to provide.
"Unlimited class size does not support a safe and supportive learning environment for our students," she said. "We support a cap on class sizes to give students the individual attention they need."
She said that cap and a fair compensation package would help the district attract and retain excellent teachers.
"Experienced, high-quality teachers are leaving the district in droves because the board refuses to improve student learning conditions and teacher working conditions," she said. "Clearly, the board has lost touch with this community's values."
Evans said teachers have been "overwhelmed" by community support.
"Parents are doing research and contacting board members," she said. "They have attended and spoken at meetings and participated in canvassing events. They started a ribbon campaign in the neighborhoods and joined our sign campaign.
"I have been working in Reynoldsburg schools for 29 years," she said. "I have never seen this level of involvement and support for the teachers."