Black woman outside at rally holding a sign that says Tax $ for Schools Not for Scabs

On June 18, members of the Columbus Education Association and community supporters gathered downtown at the STRS Plaza to protest an impending move by the Columbus school board. A block away, the Columbus Board of Education was preparing to vote on whether to hire the Michigan-based agency Huffmaster for strike contingency planning.

"We do not want a strike,” CEA president John Coneglio told the crowd. “Your bargaining team is committed to doing everything possible to reach an agreement. We want to be back in the classrooms, doing what we do best. However, we need to be crystal clear to those in power: we will not let you shortchange our students, and we will not accept a contract that treats us as anything less than the professional educators that we are.”

The union’s leadership was largely passive in years past, while the Board of Education closed schools, increased class sizes, allowed teacher pay to stagnate, and cut funding for art, music, physical education, and support staff. Coneglio’s election in 2018 by a sweeping 55% — the first time in CEA history that an incumbent president has been defeated — reflects a new fighting spirit in Columbus educators. Emboldened by teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, and California, the CEA is no longer willing to accept whatever the school district offers.

"Now is the time to fight for reduced class size, for meaningful discipline programs, for compensating educators as professionals, for fighting tax abatements to corporations that don't need them,” Coneglio said. In addition to targeting the school board, the CEA is demanding that Columbus City Council stop giving tax abatements to wealthy corporations, which divert tax dollars sorely needed for public schools.

“Keep our kids safe and healthy. No more tax breaks for the wealthy!” the crowd shouted.

Dana Metunis, a school counselor for Columbus Public Schools, says that the district needs more support staff, including counselors, nurses, and social workers. Bringing in replacement workers from Huffmaster in the event of a strike would make a bad situation worse. “Generally [these] people aren't licensed in the areas they're assigned in, and they're not certified to be able to work with the students,” she said.

Chants from the crowd were more blunt: “Kids need counselors and science labs. Spend on students, not on scabs!”

About 70 educators and support staff packed into the school board meeting to voice their opposition to hiring Huffmaster. Chants from the crowd outside could be clearly heard in the board room. Nevertheless, the board went into executive session and voted unanimously to hire Huffmaster for pre-strike contingency planning services.

The Columbus school board should take a warning from the Reynoldsburg Education Association’s strike in 2014. The Reynoldsburg school board’s decision to hire Huffmaster to break that strike was disastrous, both for Reynoldsburg students and for the school board.

Citing safety concerns, Joe Begeny voted against hiring Huffmaster when he was on the Reynoldsburg school board in 2014, the Columbus Dispatch reported. Five years later, he “is the only current board member who served that year.”

Reynoldsburg employed about 350 teachers in 2014. Huffmaster provided only half that many substitute teachers, Begeny told the Dispatch. For the 15-day strike, the school district paid Huffmaster about $1.39 million.  The Columbus Public Schools has about 4,000 teachers. The cost to the district for a 15-day strike would be astronomical.

In the Reynoldsburg strike “we had a lot of substitutes that were sleeping on the job, a lot of substitutes that weren’t really doing their jobs,” Begeny told “There were not enough people in the buildings to cover everything the way that a normal certified teaching staff does and safety was at risk.”

When police are called in to a public action — whether it’s anti-Trump protest or a demand for reproductive rights — this chant often goes up: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” School boards across the U.S. should be asking themselves the same question. The Columbus Board of Education is choosing to spend money on breaking a long-overdue strike, instead of spending on resources that would improve public education in a district that serves 50,000 students.

The Columbus school board is allowing itself to be used as a tool by moneyed elites who don’t care about the quality of public schools. The ruling class in Columbus wants to continue to chip away at public education, giving them a pretext for continuing to push for-profit, low-quality charter schools. They don’t care because they can afford to send their children to private schools.

Contract negotiations between the CEA and Columbus City Schools will resume after July 15. The current contract expires on August 18, four days before students begin the 2019-20 school year. Union members have voted to approve a 10-day strike notice if a satisfactory agreement is not reached. 

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