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Accord on 3-Year Contract Averts Strike in Cleveland

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Cleveland teachers and administrators averted a strike last week with an 11th-hour agreement on a tentative contract.

The three-year contract approved by bargainers on Sept. 15 ended the union's plans to strike after midnight that evening.

That agreement, however, is only the first of many hurdles the 72,000-student district must clear in order to solve its financial and management woes. Cleveland taxpayers and school officials are already looking ahead to election day, when a vote on a proposal to raise property taxes will further spell out the district's financial future.

The teachers' contract agreement calls for a wage freeze during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years. In 1998-1999, teachers would receive a 3 percent salary increase.

Their health-insurance premiums will increase under the proposed contract, but the agreement guarantees that the premium will remain constant over the three years.

"There was no money in there because the district is broke, but other than that we are very pleased," Richard A. DeColibus, the president of the 5,000-member Cleveland Teachers Union, said in an interview. He added that the insurance language was "probably the greatest victory."

The district had initially asked teachers to take a 10 percent pay cut, but later said the cuts could come from a combination of pay and benefit cuts. Administrators had hoped to come up with $22.5 million to close a deficit in the district's roughly $500 million budget. ("Tentative Agreement Ends Strike in E. St. Louis; Cleveland Standoff," Sept. 11, 1996.)

District administrators now estimate that the new contract agreement will provide about $12 million in savings. "I think it was best summed up by both sides: It's not the best settlement but it's not the worst, either," said Rick Ellis, a spokesman for the district. "It's a document of compromise."

Teachers were scheduled to vote on the contract throughout last week. The final results were expected to be announced on Sept. 24.

Looking to Levy

The acrimonious negotiations pitted the union against the district and the Ohio education department, which took control of the financially troubled school system last year.

Earlier this year, the state auditor declared that the district, which is estimated to be $152 million in debt, was on the brink of financial collapse.

Steven Puckett, the assistant state superintendent who is serving as the department's main representative in Cleveland, said the district would close the rest of this year's budget gap by looking for other cost-saving opportunities.

A new state law requiring that an outside financial commission oversee the spending of districts that are declared to be in a fiscal emergency is expected to take effect soon for Cleveland, Mr. Puckett said. That financial commission could help find cost reductions, he said.

The district is also placing hopes for relief in the tax levy on the Nov. 5 ballot, which is estimated to increase the district's revenues by about $67 million a year.

"That levy money will help us close the gap significantly," Mr. Puckett said. If the levy passes, he added, the district will also seek approval from the legislature to restructure its debt over a 10-year period.

But the question of whether taxpayers will support the levy remains uncertain.

"We think we have a very good shot, especially with this settlement, to pass this levy," Mr. Puckett said.

Others remain more skeptical, given the repeated refusal of city residents to pass school levies. "[The levy] had no hope if there was a strike, and even labor peace guarantees it little more than long-shot status," wrote one columnist in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

"People are kind of in a wait-and-see mode" until the teachers ratify the contract, said Janis Purdy, the executive director of the Citizens League of Greater Cleveland, a nonpartisan voter-information organization.

Ms. Purdy's group has polled taxpayers annually on the question of whether they would vote for a school levy. "Each year that we've done this, Cleveland residents are increasingly willing to say yes," she said. "And those who say 'maybe' say they would if they knew the money was going to be spent wisely."

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