Teaching Profession

Lengthy Teachers’ Walkout in Ohio Generates High Costs For Community

By Bess Keller — November 20, 2002 9 min read
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The banners hanging from the lampposts in the worn business district here show an American eagle on a ground of red stripes and proclaim: “Welcome to Maple Heights, United We Stand.”

But right now, a mere fortnight since a nine-week teachers’ strike in this Cleveland suburb sputtered messily to an end, it’s hard to imagine a community where greater factiousness has been on display.

True, the substitute teachers who staffed the district’s six schools for 62 days are gone, and the regular teachers are back in their classrooms, trying to play catch-up. Students and their relieved parents are savoring normal scholastic routines. And city leaders, no longer besieged by questions and complaints generated by the strike, can turn their attention to other civic matters.

But those involved say the repercussions of what apparently was the longest unbroken walkout ever by U.S. teachers, will play out over months, if not longer. What’s more, even the most optimistic observers say that given the acrimony generated by the strike and the depth of the problems underlying it, recovery won’t be quick or easy.

“The blowup comes from years of neglect of relationships between the schools and the community,” said state Sen. Eric D. Fingerhut, a Democrat whose district includes Maple Heights, which is both a township and a school district. “You don’t have that kind of bitterness from one failed contract negotiation.”

The teachers’ strike was foreshadowed as early as last spring. A levy request that would have raised additional operating funds for the 3,800-student system failed at the ballot box in May, prompting school officials to lay off 24 teachers while predicting larger class sizes come the fall. Teachers had campaigned for the levy, which would have been the first new money approved for schools since 1993.

But after the defeat, union officials said they would withhold their support in another ballot campaign unless the district promised to use some of the roughly $2.8 million it would have raised annually on reinstating the teachers. District leaders refused. In early August, voters again turned down the levy increase, which would have cost the owner of an $85,000 house in the working- and middle-class community about $15 more a month.

Lowest-Paid Teachers

Meanwhile, negotiations on the contract, up at the end of August were not going well. By the middle of the month, the lack of progress had sent a federal mediator to join the two parties at the table.

With the lowest beginning and average salaries in Cuyahoga County, which includes some 30 school districts, Maple Heights teachers were asking for a substantial pay hike as well as a slew of other contract changes, including lower class sizes. At the same time, the district continued to hold discussions with a company that had provided security during other Ohio teachers’ strikes and a sister firm that lines up substitute teachers to fill in for strikers.

School had been open for just two days when talks broke down, and teachers took to the picket lines. Both sides accused the other of intransigence, reflecting a pattern of accusation and counteraccusation, much of it personally couched, that was to continue throughout the walkout. Even now, the two sides offer sharply different reasons for the strike.

“Money,” said Henry R. Rish, the superintendent. “They thought we had more money than what we had. It was pretty much a financial issue.”

Not at all, say the teachers. “I believe it was ... about respect,” said Donna Gingerich, a high school counselor and a member of the Maple Heights Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Teachers say that Mr. Rish has an autocratic approach that has alienated them. Further, the union contends that the five-member elected school board was more interested in its perks than in overseeing the administration, resulting in what the union claims was mismanagement of the district’s funds.

Mr. Rish rejects the mismanagement charge. “We must be doing something right for us to be operating as efficiently as we are with the same money for years.”

During the walkout, administrators worked 10- to 14-hour days trying to make the schools run with substitute teachers, mostly people without regular licenses recruited from around Cleveland. The first days were marked by disorder, and many parents kept their children home, hoping in part to bring the strike to a quick close.

At the end of the first week, “I literally stood on a chair with my bullhorn and told the students I wasn’t going to have” the misbehavior, said Deborah A. Houchins, the principal of Maple Heights High School, where a TV had been pushed down the stairs. But the administrator said that after the first week, with more replacement teachers, students were learning again—though not at the same clip she normally would have expected.

Minimal Standards Met

A parent who visited her children’s classrooms found supervision but not much in the way of effective teaching. In her daughter’s 5th grade, “there was no ownership of the children’s learning, no papers up of students’ work,” said Sharon Redding, herself a teacher in another district. (“Ohio District Shuffles Subs as Walkout Continues,” Sept. 25, 2002.)

As the strike dragged on, school attendance climbed back to near normal. But residents were frustrated by the disruptive situation and no one appeared to be listening. The school board canceled two meetings, and refused to take questions at a third. Three days later, some 300 parents packed a local bingo hall at a meeting attended by elected state and federal officials and arranged by a newly organized group, Concerned Parents of Maple Heights.

Little by little, the parents began to realize they were up against not just a difficult problem in labor-management relations, but a community weakened by rapidly changing times and population patterns.

With its wide streets and big trees, tidy bungalows and wisps of small-town charm, Maple Heights had seemed a desirable location to young families looking for the advantages of suburbia at a modest price. It attracted many African-Americans, but not much new commerce as the suburbs moved farther from the inner city.

From its peak of about 35,000 in the 1970s, the population declined to 26,000, largely a mix of younger blacks and older whites. Public school enrollment is now about 75 percent black, while the community at large is about 45 percent African-American.

And the school system has struggled, last year earning an “academic watch” label from the state largely on the basis of its state test scores. A vast majority of the teachers are white, as are four of the five school board members.

When Tina L. Long and her family bought a house in the community about two years ago, they were happy just to avoid Cleveland, “because of the reputation of the schools, and we had never heard anything about the schools” in Maple Heights.

But she and other black parents say that since their arrival, they have spotted shortcomings, ranging from little communication with parents to insensitive discipline policies to high grades not matched by state test scores.

In a neighboring district where the Longs had lived, “I felt genuine concern for the kids,” she said. “Here, though the teachers are younger, they seem just tired.”

Blame for All

Whatever the truth of the criticisms, Sen. Fingerhut faults himself and other government officials for glossing over the situation in Maple Heights. “Every minority [school] district I have is in some form of academic watch,” the state lawmaker said. “We didn’t see the unique crisis in Maple.”

The parent-activists, too, take responsibility for the meltdown. “We need parents to get more involved in education,” said the Rev. John Malone, a leader of the Concerned Parents group, which now numbers about 70 members.

By the end of October, local parents and politicians at the state and federal levels were focused on the strike, pressing for a resolution. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a Democrat, in particular urged the federal mediator to take the unusual step of drafting a compromise contract himself.

He did, but not before an ugly turn of events highlighted the need for an end to the conflict. A severed raccoon’s head was delivered to Principal Houchins, who was also a member of the administration’s negotiating team. The husband of a Maple Heights teacher was arrested for a vindictive act toward a public official.

After nine hours of negotiations ending early Nov. 4, Ms. Tubbs Jones presented the proposed contract to both parties, who tentatively approved it that day.

Under the agreement, teachers will get a 5.5 percent raise on top of the usual increases tied to education and experience over the two years of the contract, the same raise the district had offered a month earlier. Teachers got a bit more money for working during lunch and for earning graduate credits. The health plan will not be immune to changes, as the teachers had wanted, but the dental plan will remain intact, though the district had wanted to scrap it.

The contract also includes a provision that forces binding arbitration if the parties to the 2004 negotiations reach impasse.

A last round of suspense occurred the next day, when the union’s professional representative delayed the signing by hours while he read through the 200-plus pages of the document. Still, the teachers were back in school the next morning, leaving many to count the costs of the walkout.

For one, another school levy request—which had been on the ballot Nov. 5, the day the union eventually signed the contract—went down to defeat for the third time. In fact, four of the five levy requests before Maple Heights voters got a thumbs-down.

“The strike really took a toll on the sense of community, the sense of pride here,” said Mayor Santo T. Incorvaia.

And it wasn’t good for the suburb’s reputation either, which may be why the Maple Heights City Council voted “no confidence” in Superintendent Rish and the school board in October.

Mr. Incorvaia said he was surprised to find in a discussion with an out-of-state developer that “the strike was the first thing [the executives] asked about.”

Parents make investments, too, and the strike led some to consider whether they could do better by their children outside the public schools. That’s on top of fears that the lost classroom time can’t be fully made up.

“Yes, I’m thinking about alternatives,” said Ms. Long, mentioning a Christian school in a nearby community that might be right for her two children. “If we have to sacrifice, I want to do that.”

Some residents say the school district has a long way to go to build the kind of trust that translates into support at the polls. School leaders have been in power too long, asserted Barbara Gish, who has lived in Maple Heights for 47 of her 60 years. “I have voted for some levies and seen the spending go to where it’s not most needed,” she complained.

The difference between now and a couple of months ago, parent-activists and government officials say, is that more than a small circle of people are paying attention. “We have a lot of healing to do before we can get to [political action],” said Angie Oglesby of the new parent group. But, eventually, “we want [residents] to have the answers they are looking for.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Lengthy Teachers’ Walkout in Ohio Generates High Costs For Community


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