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Teachers’ union organizes peaceful demonstration

Contract negotiations ongoing within city schools

Photo by Janelle Paterson Teaching staff at all six academic buildings of Marietta City Schools were encouraged to demonstrate solidarity Wednesday by leaving their buildings at the end of the instruction day instead of continuing to work. Teachers at Washington Elementary School stepped out of the building together to demonstrate unity Wednesday.

Tense times are calling on individuals who work together to exercise emotional discipline this year and seek avenues for peaceful protest and difficult, but necessary, dialogue.

Marietta City Schools are no exception.

The city school district’s teacher union organized a demonstration Wednesday to show unity amidst lengthy contract negotiations which have resulted in mediation more than once this year.

The contract with the teachers that the district is still operating under expired in June.

Contracts are renegotiated every two years, this one has stalled and Tuesday returned to mediation.

To draw attention to the lengthy timeframe and outstanding issues, teaching staff stepped out of their buildings at the closure of the academic day on Wednesday, leaving classrooms, whiteboards and slime science experiments behind, to be returned to today.

But Wednesday was not a walkout.

“Our teachers’ workdays are seven hours and 15 minutes, and we all know that teachers work above and beyond that,” said Marietta Middle School Choir Director J.D. Benson, who since 2013 has also served as president of the Marietta Education Association, the teacher union in present negotiations with district administration. “Our main point is to just show people this is what it looks like when we’re done at the end of our workday.”

Benson added, by description, what a “walkout” would look like.

“If we had a true walkout it would be like a work stoppage,” he explained. “And we would walk out of our classrooms and leave them unmanned. And that’s not what we were doing at all. That’s against contract … that’s against everything that we stand for.”

Superintendent Will Hampton said he was notified of the action after-the-fact, and agreed the demonstration is not reminiscent of the teacher protests nationwide in 2018 and again in West Virginia in 2019 with refusals to work until pay and benefits issues were resolved at state levels.

“If there’s going to be a strike, there’s a process for all of that that has to be followed,” explained Hampton. “There are notices that have to be given, you have to reach a certain point within negotiations, you can’t just walk out.”

Why?

Teachers are tasked with the safety and supervision of minors within their care between the hours of the school day, explained both Benson and Hampton.

“When I was in high school, at Warren High School, we as student body opposed the firing of the football coach and we did a walkout and all the students left class and went to the auditorium and sat in the chairs and refused to go back to class,” Benson provided in contrast. “That was a walkout, we were protesting what was happening. All we were doing today was just showing the unified front of our union, of our 150-some members. This is what school looks like when we leave all at the time we’re supposed to leave.”

Concerns about the negotiations have flooded both Times’ voicemails and email inboxes as letters to the editor and as private complaints revealing continued disagreement at the negotiation table concerning health benefits and district contributions to health savings accounts, spousal benefits and presumed “pay cuts” if deductibles rise but pay does not.

According to Benson, contracts are renegotiated every two years.

He said he’s been a part of four such exercises and has not in working memory seen any board of education member on the other side of the negotiation table.

“I don’t ever recall the board being a part of it,” confirmed Hampton, noting he’s been on the district’s side of the table as superintendent over the past six years since leaving Marietta Middle School. “Now the board is very engaged in it, because the board and I and administration are in constant communication about it. The board works with us and gives us the parameters that we can work within, I logically couldn’t present terms of a contract that I know the board would not be supportive of.”

According to the Ohio Education Association, board members may attend the negotiations or be formally appointed to the district team, and Benson said in other districts in Ohio a practice also deployed has been direct negotiation with other school boards.

While explicit content of those negotiation discussions and mediation remains private, the negotiation teams on both sides of the table are then tasked with communicating back to the entities they represent.

Some of that reporting, Hampton noted, has happened in executive session of the board’s regular meetings this fall.

But, he said, the majority of executive sessions have focused on other matters the board must discuss including ongoing legal action and other personnel concerns.

Likewise, Bethany Colvin, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary, explained she is one of the extended team tasked with communicating progress and content from the six-teacher negotiation team Benson leads.

“There’s someone from every building, we all talk and we all share the information and the plans of how to show that we’re all together and supporting one another,” said Colvin.

Other concerns repeatedly voiced via email and across social media channels relate to the community spread of coronavirus this school year and questions about the district’s consolidation of elementary buildings next fall.

Hampton and Benson were in a separate consolidation planning meeting Wednesday when the Middle School concluded the academic day.

“There are things within the consolidation that will obviously put us in a better position, financially. And we believe that that could then help the contract,” said Benson. “But I don’t know that they’re really related, other than the fact that we’re going to be cutting jobs from the teaching positions and from the support staff. And those cuts should also put the district in a better position to be able to monetarily offer us more in our contracts.”

Consolidation and the closure of Harmar Elementary School and Putnam Elementary School at the close of the 2020-2021 school year is not on the negotiation table.

The closures were determined after more than a year of study including building upkeep costs and decline in student population numbers.

Colvin said she’s looking forward to the consolidation, though understands and shares some of the worries associated with planning the combination classrooms and grades during an active pandemic.

“I’m super excited about working with other teachers … we share ideas all the time but without us actually being together, especially this year, we haven’t talked as a grade level all year because everyone is just drowning,” said Colvin. “Being able to be in the same building will be a huge improvement for our students and for our teaching, but it’s a big stress because this year was also supposed to be meant to plan.”

Benson and Hampton said planning is going on, and according to other board members that planning was intentionally continued despite the outcome of a second failed levy attempt this fall.

And today, teachers will step back into classrooms, slime, grading and covering for their quarantined teammates as community spread of the virus continues.

Janelle Patterson may be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.

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