Q&A: Gahanna-Jefferson teachers union answers five questions

ThisWeek Staff

Editor’s note: ThisWeek sent both the Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District and Gahanna-Jefferson Education Association five questions for this Q&A, and both sides initially agreed to answer them.

Judy Hengstebeck, the district’s communications coordinator, emailed ThisWeek at 3:52 p.m. Oct. 14, saying the “district is working really hard to resolve this issue. We will not release any further information at this time.”

Hengstebeck followed up with a call to ThisWeek, saying, “We appreciate the opportunity to comment, but we were back in mediation today with the teachers union, and we do not want to say anything that would interfere with that process.”

GJEA spokesperson Betsy Baker responded to the following questions:

What concessions has your side made since negotiations began?

Although she’s not a member of the negotiating team, Baker said, multiple proposals and counter-proposals have been exchanged involving a variety of learning plans. Some movement forward has occurred, she said.

Q&A

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What point or points is your side unwilling to budge on?

Baker said she doubts there's anything the education association 100% can or cannot do.

"We are open to any and every proposal that creates a safe and equitable learning environment for our students and sets them up for success," she said.

If a teacher has to monitor remote learning and in-classroom students simultaneously, she said, it "ultimately takes away from both groups. ... We don't want a student to feel like he or she is a camera in the back of the room and an afterthought to the teacher."

If a teacher cannot focus attention on one group, an equitable environment isn't created, she said.

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What have parents and students told you about where they stand with the current status of learning?

Baker said she hasn't talked directly to parents, but some students under their own initiative joined picket lines Oct. 12 and 13.

"It was 100% not organized by us. We didn't request it," she said.

The students "have been extremely supportive. A lot of them are carrying signs, marching up and down the street with us. ... You can't even put into words what that feels like when the students you are fighting for are out there supporting you," she said.

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How concerned are you about parents and students taking a side, thereby leading to further division? Explain.

"Any event like this is going to cause division. Most people are going to choose a side," Baker said.

"It's extremely concerning to us that we feel like we have caused a divide in this community. Many of our staff members are residents of this community. Their kids go to school in the district. ... We want nothing more than to come to a compromise with the other side. We need to know that where students are coming back to school, they're in a safe and equitable learning environment. And even if they are choosing to remain remote, they still are getting that equitable learning experience."

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In addition to the manner in which in-person instruction is planned, what other points of contention remain, such as salaries, benefits, etc.?

When negotiations began last spring, Baker said, the administration proposed a salary increase that was verbally agreed upon in the first meeting. Insurance costs currently are locked in and not part of the negotiations, she said.

The talks mostly are focused on the back-to-school plan, she said. 

The risk to teachers from COVID-19 is a concern, but it's not something that would prevent the strike from being settled, Baker said.

She said if half the Lincoln High School students are learning remotely, that still puts about 1,000 people in the building.

Some teachers have young children or immunity-compromised or elderly relatives, she said.

A COVID-19 dashboard on the district website Oct. 14 said 100 district students have been quarantined and 14 have tested positive for the virus. Among the staff, 10 were quarantined and two tested positive.

"This is before everyone's even returned to the buildings," Baker said.

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