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At Impasse on Contract, Cleveland Teachers Threaten Strike

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After weeks of bargaining and barb-trading, Cleveland teachers and administrators still had not agreed on a contract last week.

If the dispute about the contract, which formally expired on Aug. 31, could not be settled, the Cleveland Teachers Union threatened to strike on Sept. 4.

The acrimonious negotiations have pitted the 5,000-member union against the district and the Ohio education department, which took over the financially troubled district last year.

Teachers have asked for an extension of the current contract, while the state has insisted on a new contract that would change current work rules, require teachers to pay more for health insurance, and cut teachers' salaries by 10 percent.

"We would like to avoid a strike, but we are willing to sustain one," said Steven Puckett, the assistant state superintendent who is serving as the department's main representative in Cleveland.

In preparing for a strike, administrators were reviewing more than 1,300 applications for replacement teachers, Mr. Puckett said. And the state has arranged for contractors to handle clerical, security, food service, and other staffing needs, he added.

Mr. Puckett noted that having the state at the bargaining table changed the dynamics of the contract negotiations slightly, in strengthening the district's position and bolstering "the will not to cave in."

Financial Woes

The contract dispute comes less than a year after the district, which is estimated to be $152 million in debt, was declared by the state auditor to be on the brink of financial collapse. (Please see "Reform Plan Unveiled for Cleveland Schools," January 10, 1996.)

The teachers' union complains that the 72,000-student district wants teachers to bear the weight of its financial problems.

Richard DeColibus, the president of the CTU, said in an interview that the city has other resources available for the schools, such as the millions of dollars in tax abatements it has given to commercial building projects.

Mr. DeColibus said the union is seeking a one-year extension of the contract and the passage of a 13.5-mill levy that is on the November citywide ballot, in the hope that the financial picture will be brighter next year to negotiate a contract that is better for teachers.

But Mr. Puckett said the district must come up with $22.5 million to close a deficit in this year's roughly $500 million budget, a factor that had created the need for a 10 percent salary cut.

The pay cut "is still on the table unless the teachers can find us another way to meet the $22 million," he said.

Mr. Puckett added that the state also wants changes in the contract's work rules such as requiring more time for direct instruction by teachers and allowing principals to call more than one faculty meeting a month.

Those demands, Mr. DeColibus responded, would simply amount to "more work for less money."

Arkansas Strike

In other strike action, one Arkansas school district has already lost more than a week of school due to a teachers' strike.

Teachers in the 20,500-student Pulaski County Special School District, which includes 38 schools around the Little Rock area, have demanded a 2.84 percent pay increase that the district says it cannot afford.

The strike began on what was to have been the first day of school, Aug. 19. Last week, a federal judge ordered both parties to mediation.

Although roughly one-third of teachers crossed picket lines on Aug. 28, the school board voted to close school on the 29th and 30th to allow both sides to focus on negotiations, according to district spokesman Ron Standridge.

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