The Reynoldsburg Board of Education took another step toward preparing for a teachers strike last week by authorizing the purchase of nearly $210,000 worth of laptop computers and software to support lessons given by substitute teachers paid to cross picket lines.
Two weeks ago, board members approved a contract with Huffmaster Inc. for $81,000 to provide substitute teachers in the event of a strike. Members of the Reynoldsburg Education Association, the union representing district teachers, voted Aug. 8 to authorize their leaders to file a 10-day strike notice, at their discretion. The REA contract with the district expired July 31.
The two sides also have filed unfair labor practice complaints against each other with the State Employment Relations Board.
A notice to strike has not been filed, but the district has to prepare for the worst scenario, said Tricia Moore, director of shared services and partnerships.
"We know we can't replace Reynoldsburg teachers overnight," she said. "But we have an obligation if there is a strike to keep schools open and safe and to help students keep making progress academically."
Meanwhile, purple and white signs stating, "We support Reynoldsburg Teachers," are cropping up in front yards all around the city and a Facebook page called Raider Strong We Care now has more than 600 members.
Teacher and REA spokeswoman Kathy Evans said parents and community members have so far requested 1,500 signs.
"We just ordered another 500 because there is such a high demand for them," Evans said. "The support we are getting from the community is incredible."
She said the REA and the Ohio Education Association paid for the signs, which were printed at a union shop, but said she did not know the cost.
Reynoldsburg parent Tracey De Feyter said she supports teachers in the ongoing dispute over compensation based on merit pay, class sizes and planning time.
"I don't believe many parents like the idea of a school district being run like a business," she said. "Our children are not pawns or commodities. Our teachers have gone above and beyond for so long. They earned the district ratings of Excellent with Distinction and A-plus, even when faced with pay freezes."
De Feyter said she doesn't believe money is the motivating factor for teachers in the current dispute.
"Educating our children and seeing them grow and succeed is what motivates them," she said. "They can't do this in overcrowded classrooms or with too little planning time. What it boils down to is our teachers' working conditions and our students' learning conditions."
De Feyter said bringing in teachers through Huffmaster makes her "incredibly uneasy."
"I'm concerned that our already crowded classes would be combined because Huffmaster won't be able to bring in enough people to replace all of the teachers," she said. "I'm concerned that untrained replacement staff will be allowed to look after students with special needs and IEPs (individual education plans). I fear no real learning will take place."
Her fears appear to be shared by a lot of parents who have been writing email letters to school board members about the substitutes and posting comments on the Raider Strong We Care and the REA Facebook pages.
It was to alleviate some of those concerns that Superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning sent a letter Aug. 28 to parents titled "Strike preparations," Moore said.
"We want to let people know that we are making preparations in case of a strike," Moore said. "We will keep the schools open and also follow our normal substitute hiring procedures. Because of the volume of substitutes we will need, however, we had to have some outside assistance (from Huffmaster)."
She said the 735 Chromebook laptops purchased from CDW Co. at a cost of $209,959.97, approved by school board members at a special meeting Aug. 27, will be used to help substitutes keep students on track in their studies and if necessary, could be used both at home and as additional instructional tools during a strike.
"We're already using some learning tools that are web-based, which include some instructional tools and curriculum practice," Moore said. "So we will expand that with the laptops to support substitutes and make sure students are working on the correct things."
In her letter to parents, Thomas-Manning said Huffmaster specializes in recruiting, screening and selecting skilled substitute teachers in case of a work stoppage.
"The company will follow our high standards for screening applicants, including state and federal background checks and proper licensure through the state of Ohio," she wrote. "We will prioritize positions to support our most vulnerable students first, with the expectation that we will be adequately staffed at all levels."
She said administrators will try "to preserve as many specialized and extracurricular opportunities for students as possible."
"We are proud of the array of activities students are able to choose and will do everything we can to prevent their disruption," she said.
Moore said the district will also bring in extra administrative support in the event of a strike, such as retired school superintendents and principals who live in central Ohio.
"They will help provide oversight and generally support the principals in making sure schools are safe and productive," she said.
She said the district does not yet know how much it might spend hiring the retired administrators.
The union and district negotiating teams meet next with a federal mediator Sept. 5.
"We hope that the teams can work out an agreement," Moore said. "Our preference is to keep Reynoldsburg teachers in the classrooms. We have great people doing wonderful things for our kids in this district.
"But we don't have control over whether the union leadership will strike, so we have to be prepared in case they do," she said.