The kind of pay freeze some critics say the South-Western City Schools should force onto its unions has occurred twice recently in Ohio.

The kind of pay freeze some critics say the South-Western City Schools should force onto its unions has occurred twice recently in Ohio.

Bob Ruth and Terry Jones -- who criticize SWCS spending policies and opposed the school levy in November 2009 -- said the school board should negotiate a freeze in both base salary and step increases during talks scheduled to begin this spring with the district's employees' unions. Step increases are annual raises given to certain employees based on their level of education number of years with the district.

On Jan. 19, the Reynoldsburg Board of Education approved wage concessions with teachers and classified employees that will save the district just over $1-million.

The plan offered by the Reynoldsburg Education Association and the Reynoldsburg Support Service Association will freeze base and step salaries for the employees until July 31, 2011.

A district in Summit County took similar action in 2009.

Van Keating, director of management services for the Ohio School Boards Association, said the group tracks contract settlements reported to the OSBA by Ohio school districts and prints the results in the OSBA newsletter. For 2009, the newsletter listed about 75 contract agreements reached with school employees in Ohio. Twenty-six of those agreements included a base pay freeze for at least one year.

One of those districts -- Coventry Local Schools in Summit County -- negotiated a one-year freeze of both teachers' base pay and step increases in April 2009. The district's non-teaching employees, who belong to the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, accepted a similar freeze the following month.

Coventry superintendent Russell Chaboudy said he was "amazed" the unions agreed to what Keating called an "absolute pay freeze."

Chaboudy said the initial idea to freeze the base pay came from the teachers' union, in reaction to a district plan to lay off employees with buyouts. The district was facing a deficit of more than $2-million.

Chaboudy said the district administration calculated a base pay freeze would save two or three jobs, but a freeze of both base and step increases would save about 14.

"It was a difficult sell, but we were successful," he said. Ultimately, only two employees were laid off.

Another motivation for the unions, Chaboudy said, was to encourage support for the district's 4.99-mill, three-year operating levy on the November ballot.

The pay freeze "did not make any difference," he said. With about 3,000 people voting, the levy failed by about 550 votes. The school board is considering putting another levy on the May ballot.

When the freeze ends, Chaboudy said, the employees will pick up where they left off on the step-increase scale.

Elementary teacher Judy Sineksy was president of the Coventry Education Association, the teachers' union, in 2009.

She downplayed the pay freeze connection with the levy, saying the teachers were more motivated by idealism.

In an area with an unemployment rate of about 10.1 percent, Sineksy said union members wanted to save teachers' jobs and help the community.

The teachers "looked at their friends, and if they could take a freeze to save a friend's job, they were willing to do that," she said.

Sineksy also said most teachers live in the same community as the schools. "We are such a closeknit community, many parents are (teachers') friends. The teachers saw the people in Coventry struggling, and wanted to help.

"It sounds corny," she said, but the teachers are motivated by the love of the job. Coventry already was the lowest-paying district in Summit County, which includes Akron, she said.

The Reynoldsburg unions agreed to complete pay freezes, giving up both step increases and cost-of-living increases with no provisions to make up the sacrifices in the next rounds of contract negotiations.

In the past five years, the district has reduced costs by 31 percent by cutting more than $17-million from a $54-million budget. In the wake of a third levy failure in November, district officials are planning to eliminate another $4-million for next year.

The RSSA, which includes secretaries, bus drivers, custodians, maintenance workers, cooks, security personnel and paraprofessionals, ratified a two-year contract that is retroactive to July 31, 2009, and freezes salaries through July 31, 2011.

The REA, which represents all certified teachers in the district, ratified a one-year contract extension that forgoes both step increases and cost-of-living raises for the 2010 fiscal year running through July 31, 2011.

In addition, the district reduced the salaries of its administrative and central office support staff by eight days this school year and will freeze all of their salaries for the 2010-11 school year.

RSSA president Rhonda Eberst said more than 90 percent of the classified staff are Reynoldsburg residents who understand the sacrifices families have made.

"We knew it had to be done, and make concessions," she said. "We are not just employees of this district, we are parents and community members who are unwilling to sacrifice the education of our children.