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Columbus teachers' union votes to strike days before start of school year

 Striking Columbus teachers picket outside of Weinland Park Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.
Matthew Rand
Striking Columbus teachers picket outside of Weinland Park Elementary School on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, Columbus teachers are officially on strike. The teachers union voted overwhelmingly Sunday night to reject the school board's "last, best and final offer" for a new contract.

Now, children and families are eyeing a virtual start to the school year if the dispute can't get resolved by Wednesday.

The union said more than 94% of its nearly 4,500 members voted to strike and to reject the school board's proposal.

The strike officially began one minute after midnight, as CEA's old contract with the district expired.

Members were picketing outside Columbus schools on Monday morning.

Union spokeswoman Regina Fuentes said the school board has "tried desperately" to make this impasse about economic issues, including salary. But she said teacher pay isn't the reason for the vote to strike.

"Let me be clear: this strike is about our students who deserve a commitment to modern schools and heating and air conditioning, smaller class sizes, and a well-rounded curriculum that includes art, music, and [physical education]," she said.

A lack of adequate HVAC systems in school buildings has been a major point of tension in negotiations.

"We understand these things take time but they need to come through with accountability to let our students, our parents know that they are actually going to fix these schools," Fuentes said.

CEA was at one point asking for raises of 8% a year. The school board's final offer included 3% raises.

Fuentes insists the two sides never got to issues of compensation before the school ended negotiations on Thursday.

School board president Jennifer Adair released a statement calling the vote to strike "incredibly disappointing."

"Our offer to CEA put children first and prioritized their education and their growth. We offered a generous compensation package for teachers and provisions that would have a positive impact on classrooms. Our offer was also responsive to the concerns that have been raised by CEA during the negotiations process. Our community’s children are the Board’s priority, and our offer reflected that fact," Adair said.

Fuentes said there's no limit to how long teachers could picket, but the strike could end as early as today if the school board would come back to the bargaining table.

The school district has announced plans that involve hundreds of substitute teachers and a return to online learning. That plan is deeply unpopular among many of the parents who have spoken out in recent days about the situation.

Parent Ashley McCarthy has a 1st-grade daughter with special needs. She's worried about a return to online classes.

"The thought of her having to do virtual again, since going virtual with the pandemic honestly was a nightmare for us as a family. She regressed so far backwards," McCarthy said.

District plans also call for grab-and-go breakfast and lunch meals to be distributed at 25 school sites.

School board president Adair spoke to reporters Monday morning about what's next. She said the board will hold a special meeting tonight in executive session.

"There will be no voting tonight. But it's a chance for the board to contemplate next steps and hearing briefing as a group."

At a news conference Monday afternoon, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther expressed his support for teachers who he said deserve to be heard, but also expressed his concerns about the educational disruption for students.

"It's up to all of us, parents, educators, administrators, neighbors, mentors, coaches, and caretakers to find common ground and come together in support of our children, their education and their well-being," Ginther said.

In the meantime, the mayor said nine community centers across the city will be available for students to access homework help. Ginther also called on church and community leaders to step in and help students and parents during the strike.

Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.