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Columbus Education Association wins bid to keep outreach positions as part of union

 Columbus teachers gathered at Goodale Park before marching to protest the city’s tax abatement policies.
Matthew Rand
Columbus Education Association members rally outside of school board headquarters July 27, 2022.

An arbitrator has sided with the Columbus Education Association and reversed a Columbus City Schools decision that removed several positions from the union over the summer.

The employees work with vulnerable and unhoused students to connect them with services and keep them in their original home school through the district’s Project Connect program.

The district made the move in July, which also came with cuts to benefits and pay for some employees. The union filed a grievance and an unfair labor practice charge with the State Employment Relations Board.

The arbitrator ordered the district to immediately restore the positions to the bargaining unit, pay the employees’ back union dues and reimburse the employees with any loss of pay or benefits they experienced.

In July, Amy Bradley with Project Connect said the change would have made it harder to find people to serve in these positions. “People who are talented and experienced and dedicated know that those better positions are governed by the union that are, you know, predictable with compensation and we can't just be called in one day and given 30 percent pay cuts," she said.

Bradley also said the decision wasn’t transparent. “This was a unilateral move that didn't ask for input from the experts on the staff, or they didn't consult the union either," she said.

The district argued the move was to comply with state guidance regarding job classifications, and said they didn’t expect the move to hurt efforts to help vulnerable students. "This change was based on Ohio Department of Education guidance regarding licensure. So we were told that full-time employees cannot use a substitute license, and therefore we reclassify the employees to be in alignment with a job classification that does not require a teaching license," said Superintendent Talisa Dixon in July.

Bradley argued that the district wouldn't share that guidance. The issue was ongoing as the district and union debated other issues in the union contract before the start of the school year.

The employees are tasked with helping unhoused students and their parents find the resources needed to keep them in their original school districts and connect them with services while they are experiencing crisis.

In July, Machelle Kline, chief of student services for the district, praised the Project Connect staff. "These people pour their hearts out. They work with these families that have no home that live in cars, that live in the shelters. They help connect them with social services and food. They connected them with getting shoes for their children, clothing, school supplies, all those kinds of things," she said.

Following the release of the arbitrator's decision, the district's chief communications and engagement officer Scott Wortman indicated the organization does not consider the issue settled.

"We will be working with the arbitrator to move forward in the arbitration process. In the meantime, we will continue to serve our students and families in need," he said.

His statement continued, "Columbus City Schools provides education and assistance to our homeless students through the work of our dedicated CCS staff. Last spring, we aligned the positions in the Division of Students and Families in Transition to the work being completed, and the arbitrator disagreed with our alignment."

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.