Teachers wearing red and community members wearing white packed the Aug. 19 Reynoldsburg Board of Education meeting, where members voted 4-0 to hire a company that would bring in substitute teachers if members of the Reynoldsburg Education Association go on strike.
Board President Andrew Swope, Vice President Elaine Tornero and members Loretta King and Sandy Long voted to approve an $81,000 contract with Huffmaster that will go into effect if teachers file a 10-day strike notice.
Board member Joe Begeny, a teacher with Columbus City Schools, abstained.
Begeny said if he voted to approve the contract, he would betray his instincts as an educator.
"I am deeply worried about the qualifications of those people entering our classrooms and teaching our students," he said. "Security for our students is one thing, education is something different."
At the same time, he said, he couldn't vote against hiring Huffmaster because, "I could possibly be placing a major hardship on the families of Reynoldsburg" who depend on the district's breakfast and lunch services for their children.
The audience of more than 600 people at the Aug. 19 board meeting included Reynoldsburg teachers and union members from other districts, along with parents belonging to a support group called Raider Strong We Care. They crowded into the performing arts center at Encore Academy and stood for nearly 10 minutes, holding yellow signs that read, "Our Community Deserves Better."
Board members approved four more teacher resignations last week, bringing the total number of teacher resignations to 54 since January.
REA spokeswoman Kathy Evans said the combined resignations, retirements and one-year leaves of absence amount to 20 percent of the teaching staff from last year that is not returning to Reynoldsburg classrooms.
"Reynoldsburg students deserve better, including reasonable class sizes and a means of addressing the unprecedented teacher turnover in our district," she said.
Swope, who is on the district bargaining team, told the audience he has received a lot of emails suggesting the board must have a political agenda.
"I've given 15 years of my life (to the school board), and I find it insulting to get those emails," he said. "These negotiations have dragged out because of schedule conflicts, but we are all working together in a respectful way.
"I believe one board member, however, has a conflict of interest, because he belongs to a union," Swope said.
Begeny is the only board member belonging to a union.
"During the election, there was no mention of conflict of interest," Begeny said. "The community obviously voted me into this position. Only now do you decide to bring up this conflict of interest?"
Begeny said later that Swope assured him after the meeting "that I and the rest of the audience misunderstood his comments."
"He stated to me that he meant that I have a conflict of interest that prevents me from being on the negotiating team, not a board member in general," Begeny said.
King said she isn't a member of the negotiating team but believes teachers "deserve to be paid their worth."
"I also think it is fair to pay a great teacher more," she said. "I believe in a merit-pay hybrid -- you should earn more if you work hard and deserve it."
The parent group Raider Strong We Care presented a petition with 584 signatures to the board that said, "We wholeheartedly object to salaries based on a merit pay system ... it neglects to recognize the unique nature of education, the need for collaboration, the intrinsic motivation of teachers and the wide range of demographics educators see in their classrooms each year."
A number of parents at the meeting stressed the need for firm caps on class sizes and spoke against the merit pay proposal.
Parent Jim Rodenmayer said he has researched merit pay programs.
"There is no data this is good for kids and it has no support from the community," he said.
"Trust is the reason that parents and teachers stand side by side tonight -- we trust our teachers," Beth Thompson said.
Denise Shook referred to a statement made at the Aug. 12 board meeting by a member who said she had received email letters from only 50 concerned parents.
"Look around you," Shook said. "I count more than 50 concerned citizens in this room."