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Teachers battling it out with Cleveland Heights-University Heights admins over wages, healthcare coverage

Cleveland Heights teacher strike
Posted at 10:47 PM, Nov 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-29 23:24:00-05

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — Members of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union are battling it out with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District over employee wages and healthcare compensation.

“For many of our members this is a first,” Tiffiny Underhile said. “We never thought that it would come to this.”

Teachers, counselors, nurses and other support staff announced they will go on strike beginning Wednesday, Dec. 2 after months of bargaining but an overall failure to reach an agreement.

“Our district is, frankly, in a very grim financial situation due to several factors beyond our control,” said Board of Education President Jodi Sourini.

Members of the union, including Underhile, are arguing against what they are calling unfair changes to employee wages and higher costs for healthcare benefits.

“Potentially three to five thousand dollars more per year for each member,” Underhile said. “And that is just looking at the premiums and the other additions to the healthcare.”

Union members said the changes could drive experienced educators away from the district and lower the quality of student education.

Sourini said the district can no longer function under previous healthcare coverage plans for staff members.

“They have no co-pays, no deductibles, no office visit co-pays,” Sourini said. “And frankly, our community just can't afford that anymore.”

In addition to the disagreement over the contract, union members are upset they’ll lose healthcare coverage while on strike.

“My family, we are on my health care plan,” Underhile said. “So in the middle of a global pandemic, it is scary to know that we are going to have our benefits cut off, for sure.”

However, Sourini said the cuts to striking union members are state protocol.

“It's a legal obligation to stop wages and benefits for any striking employees. It's not a matter of whether or not it's the right thing to do. It's a matter of complying with the law,” Sourini said. “I sincerely hope that their union leadership has informed the members of what they are choosing, what choosing to strike means.”

Longtime Cleveland Heights resident Henry Alexander said the lack of an agreement between the district and the union is hindering educational opportunities.

“The students are paying the price. The parents are paying the price,” Alexander said. “Because now those parents will definitely have to look for someone to be home with those children maybe grades K-5 or K-6.”

Read the full strike notice issued by the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union below:

“Cleveland Heights Teachers Union (CHTU), which represents 500 teachers, counselors, nurses, paraprofessionals, and other school support professionals, filed a ten-day notice to strike, beginning on December 2, 2020. The strike notice follows months of bargaining sessions with the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District and a membership vote in October, with an overwhelming majority in favor of striking if a fair contract was not reached.

‘We’re fighting for a fair contract because we know that the alternative -- lowering standards for teachers and staff -- will increase turnover and drive experienced, skilled educators out of our school district,’ said CHTU President Karen Rego.

The school district’s Board of Education has imposed contract terms that slash compensation by dramatically increasing costs on healthcare (raising the employee share of the premium to 250% of its current share) and eliminating a 1% retirement contribution which was negotiated in a previous contract in lieu of a raise. On average, members will lose close to $4,000 on the healthcare changes alone. When the retirement concession is added in, some members may lose up to 8% or more of their take-home pay.

‘Our schools are facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19 and remote learning,’ said CHTU 2nd Vice-President Tamar Gray. ‘Teachers and staff have been working harder than ever and rising to meet these challenges. But at the same time, our district’s Board has been fighting to push us backward on wages and benefits. We can’t continue to do more with less.’

Over the past 10 years CHTU members have received raises totaling only 8.5 percent; far below the cost of living increases, and far less than raises in neighboring districts.

‘We understand the financial state of our school district, especially the impact of voucher deductions in our district,’ said 1st Vice-President Ari Klein. ‘We’re committed to working together with our Board to change state policy and end the harmful EdChoice voucher deductions. We’re disappointed that instead, our Board has chosen to attack the teachers and staff who keep this school district running.’

The school district is projected to lose $9 million this year alone to private school voucher deductions, though the Fair School Funding Plan (HB 305 and SB 376) which is advancing in the lame-duck legislative session would end those deductions. Additionally, a 4.8 mill levy was just approved by the community.

‘The Union has come forward with several proposals that offer concessions to our insurance benefits,’ said Rego. ‘We know the district has the resources to settle a fair contract and we’re ready to work with our Board to find a resolution because our students deserve a school district that can recruit and retain the best educators.’"

Read the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District Board of Education’s response below:

“There has been discussion on social media and in the community about whether public school teachers in Ohio give up their right to pay and benefits beginning on the first day of a strike. Please understand, the Board is fully aware of its legal obligations in this regard, and we feel it’s important to share additional details with you.

We want to first emphasize that despite our good faith negotiating efforts over many months of bargaining, the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union on November 20 chose to give the District a notice of their members’ intent to strike beginning on December 2. We have been in discussions with the Union for nearly 20 hours in the last several days to work to resolve our differences, and we remain committed to the process.

When public school teachers choose to go on strike, they are knowingly walking away from wages and benefits. That is the definition of a strike - employees choose to walk away from their compensation in order to influence terms and conditions of employment. Ceasing wages and benefits is required for public sector employees in Ohio under state law. We sincerely hope Union leadership informed its members of this and what choosing to strike means.

Our District is not alone in this. Ohio public school districts who have experienced strikes in recent years consistently took these same steps to comply with the law. That includes, for example, the Fall 2020 Gahanna-Jefferson School District strike where the District took steps to cancel health insurance for teachers when they went on strike.

However, employees may also choose to continue their health benefits through COBRA, even during the period of a strike. If they elect the COBRA coverage, there will be no lapse in coverage. The change is the employee, not the Board, must pay for the coverage. While we understand this expense will be a burden to some striking teachers, it does allow for continuation of coverage during a strike.

Just as the Union has the legal right to call for a strike, the District has the legal right to make work available to any bargaining unit member who wants to work during the strike. Teachers who choose to continue to work will continue to receive their pay and benefits.

This was an incredibly difficult resolution for the Board to pass, particularly during a global health emergency. But the Board recognizes its obligation to do so. We still hold out hope that a strike can be averted for our students’ sake. No matter what, we most certainly respect our teachers and their right as public employees to make their own choice.”

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