Today the Cleveland Teachers Union and the Cleveland Public Schools are sitting down at the bargaining table for the first time in six years to negotiate a new contract. As ideastream's Lisa Ann Pinkerton reports, this time around they're trying a new type of negotiating strategy that some say is less adversarial - but that won't mean the top issues will be any less contentious.
The current teacher's contract with the Cleveland Public Schools is really an extension the 2000 contract. That extension gave teachers a 3% raise in exchange for higher healthcare co-pays and prescription costs. So today, the district pays first-year teachers with a bachelor's degree just over $35,000 a year. That's relatively high compared with other Cuyahoga County districts, but teachers Union President Joanne DeMarco says, for the tough job Cleveland's teachers do their salaries should be much higher.
Joanne DeMarco: I think we have the most difficult job we serve the children with the most difficult needs and I think we should rank number one in the county.
Cleveland Schools CEO Eugene Sanders doesn't completely disagree. But with shrinking enrollment, a looming deficit, and 80% of the district's budget going to salaries already, he says the district can't do much more.
Eugene Sanders: I think employees and teachers deserve raises, but at the same time we have to be cognizant of significantly limited resources.
Improving healthcare benefits is another top priority for both sides. The district's current provider is shutting down next winter, so it must find a new one - or become its own provider, which has cut costs in big districts like Columbus and Toledo. However, DeMarco says the district's bigger healthcare problem is in it's pension plan. Currently, she says the health insurance provided there is costly. So some teachers hold off retirement until they qualify for medicaid, and keep teaching even though their hearts may not be in it.
Safety in the schools for students and teachers may be the only issue where both sides see preliminary agreement. DeMarco says this years contract negotiations must include pledges to establish alternative choice and option schools for those students who are disruptions in class.
Joanne DeMarco: There's only a couple in each class or a small percentage in each school, so we need to provide for the youngster who cannot or will not function in a regular school so to speak.
Sanders agrees in principle with DeMarco. But with a caveat.
Eugene Sanders: What I think people need to understand is that safety and security is not a school only issue, it's a community issue. We can have all the discipline in school we want, but without strong support in the home and strong support in the community, those policies can little to no effect.
In a survey of Cleveland's teachers, safer schools, healthcare and wages were the top issues. Others that will likely be discussed include professional development and mentoring for young teachers and a peer review process for older teachers.
The entire month of February and possibly March as been scheduled for negotiations, which are taking a new approach this time around. It's called compressed or interest-based bargaining, and it encourages both parties to find common ground on various issues to make the negotiations as a whole less confrontational. But if it doesn't work...
Joanne DeMarco: Then we I guess revert to adversarial. But we're going to keep at it, be slightly ruthless and make it better for the Cleveland community and the Cleveland youngsters.
The current teacher contract expires June 30th. Lisa Ann Pinkerton, 90.3.