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Columbus City Schools substitute teachers take steps to unionize

Columbus City Schools District Office.
Nick Evans
/
WOSU

Iona Wilson, a building substitute at Hubbard Elementary School, wore a sticker that read “I am the CEA” as she walked up to the podium at the Columbus City Schools' Board of Education meeting. She came with a simple request:

“We are here tonight to formally request recognition of our union as part of the Columbus Education Association.”

Columbus City Schools' Board of Education has not officially acknowledged the substitutes’ unionization, but could do so at its meeting Tuesday evening.

A supermajority of the district’s nearly 300 building substitutes filed authorization cards with the State Employment Relations Board earlier this month, marking another post-pandemic unionization effort in the city.

The substitutes are each assigned to one of CCS' roughly 110 schools, working five days a week and filling in during short- and long-term teacher absences. They don't get the same benefits as full-time teachers, substitutes have said.

Kim Maupin, a current building substitute at Southwood Elementary and retired district teacher said that substitutes have been doing the work of teachers, from lesson planning and grading to conferencing with parents, but without the same support from the district.

Wilson added that substitutes aren’t treated with the same respect.

“I also abhor the general sense that building subs are glorified assistants rather than the full-time teachers we are often called upon to be,” Wilson said.

She said that substitutes expect better pay and the basic benefits given to other workers in the district.

“I also abhor the general sense that building subs are glorified assistants rather than the full-time teachers we are often called upon to be."
Ilona Wilson, substitute teacher at Hubbard Elementary School

A seat at the table

Last year, the district’s safety and security employees unionized. The school board voluntarily recognized the group and Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 581 was born. The board and union negotiated their first contract in November.

CEA President John Coneglio said the substitutes' efforts to unionize follow the same process.

“Our intent, consistent with state law, is to be at the table as soon as possible to bargain an interim working agreement for the building substitutes and then bring them into the master agreement with our next round of negotiations in 2025,” Coneglio said.

Substitutes would join the 4,500 librarians, nurses, counselors and psychologists already represented by the CEA.

The CCS Board of Education seems willing to cooperate, as Board President Jennifer Adair indicated at the April 4 meeting, when the board had only just learned of the substitutes' request.

Adair asked building substitutes in attendance at the meeting to raise their hands. They were met with applause from the audience and several members of the board.

“The board wants to thank you for your service,” Adair said. “You are essential members of the team, and we look forward to beginning this process with you.”

A statement from CCS said the district and the board believe in the power of collective bargaining and unions.

Still, the board has yet to formally acknowledge the substitutes. CEA spokesperson Regina Fuentes said on Monday that at least one board member has given her support, though others remained uncertain.

Just last year the board and the CEA found themselves at odds over negotiations, leading to a three-day teacher strike in August, which was the first in the district since 1975. It ended with a new contract that gave teachers pay raises for the next three years and guaranteed that student learning areas would be climate controlled.

Coneglio mentioned the leadership of interim Superintendent Angela Chapman as he said, “I believe we have started to turn the corner from our recent strike and move towards better communication and cooperation, where possible, to move the district forward.”

“Our intent, consistent with state law, is to be at the table as soon as possible to bargain an interim working agreement for the building substitutes."
John Coneglio, Columbus Education Association President

Filling in

The substitutes' unionization effort also comes alongside an ongoing nationwide teacher shortage.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reported in January that around 20% of requests for substitute teachers go unfilled. That's an increase from years past and it is attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fuentes said having the protection of a union may attract more substitutes to the district.

And, while no one can predict the future, it's possible CCS substitutes' efforts will inspire subs in other school districts to follow in their footsteps.

When asked if she thought substitutes in other districts may follow in Columbus substitutes’ footsteps and attempt to unionize, Fuentes said, “I would hope so.”

“We definitely see our union as a positive force,” Fuentes said.

In recent months, other groups have taken steps to unionize, including employees at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.