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Columbus Teachers Begin New School Year Without A Union Contract

Marchers making their way across the Main Street Bridge. Columbus teachers are protesting tax abatements as their union negotiates a new contract.
Nick Evans
Marchers making their way across the Main Street Bridge. Columbus teachers are protesting tax abatements as their union negotiates a new contract.

Students at Columbus City Schools head back to class this morning for a new academic year. Their teachers enter the school year under the relatively-rare circumstance of not having a new contract.

The teachers union votes on a new deal this Sunday.

Early this month, Columbus Education Association leaders announced they had reached a “conceptual agreement” with the district to avert a strike. However, the structure of the deal is still unknown.

WOSU and The Columbus Dispatch have filed public records requests with the school district for documents related to the negotiations, as well as any correspondence since the initial agreement was struck. In an email, district spokesman Scott Wortman said no such records exist.

“Both parties continue to work together in discussions for CEA to be able to prepare a final document to present to its members on August 25,” Wortman wrote.

He also noted the teachers union is “taking the lead to put it into contract format.” Unlike the Columbus School Board, the union is not subject to state public records law.

In addition to non-existent records, Wortman cited attorney-client privilege shielding some documents as well as exemptions for personal notes.

Kent State University journalism professor Mark Goodman is skeptical of the district’s explanation.

“I think if a court, including the Ohio Supreme Court, were to be confronted with this question, they would say, 'Well, yes, some hand written notes are really just handwritten notes, but when the whole purpose of immortalizing something only in writing is to avoid compliance with the open records law, that clearly is not what the legislature intended,'” Goodman says.

Union demands include higher teacher pay and smaller class sizes. They’ve also called on the district to invest more in nurses, librarians, arts teachers, and physical education. CEA wants the district to use an alternative discipline program as well.

But at a demonstration in April, CEA president John Coneglio highlighted another issue: property tax abatements.

“We cannot work together to build the schools Columbus students deserve if we offer handouts to wealthy corporations that don’t need them,” he said, referring to an abatement deal for CoverMyMeds’ new headquarters in Franklinton. “We cannot continue to return time and time again to individual taxpayers to shoulder the burden of funding our schools while the richest among us don’t help push the cart.”

City leaders have long contended that tax abatements spur economic development and eventually increase tax revenues.

With a vote on the final contract scheduled for the Sunday after school has begun, union members may feel greater pressure to approve the proposal.

Union members previously voted to allow leaders to call a 10-day strike if talks with the district broke down. For its part, the Columbus City School Board then lined up contingency staffing in case teachers and workers didn’t show. 

The CEA hasn’t called a strike since a five-day work stoppage in 1975.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.