Friday, October 08, 1999

Head Start workers rally today

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Newly unionized Head Start workers serving suburban Hamilton County preschoolers and their families will rally today to bring attention to their push for higher wages.

        The noon “solidarity rally” at the Kemper Heights Family Resource Center, 924 Waycross Road, Forest Park, was sparked by the union's attempt to negotiate its first contract with Hamilton County Head Start.

        Workers say the 1.5 percent pay increase they initially were offered this year isn't enough for staffers paid an average of $13,229 annually.

        Low wages contribute to high turnover, they say. And that affects the 1,500 lower-income children who get pre-kindergarten schooling and physical development services from Hamilton County Head Start.

        “We may get qualified teachers — nurturing and caring teachers, but we can't keep them because of the pay,” said Tammie McGhee, who works at the Kemper Heights center.

        Ms. McGhee, an assistant Head Start teacher for four years, earns $9,000 a year.

        Jack Collopy, executive director of Hamilton County Head Start, says his organization is working with the new union on a contract that will please both workers and management.

        But Head Start is funded by state and national grants, he said. So there's only so much money.

        “We recognize early childhood care is a low-wage area, and we're not the only agency that has problems paying good wages,” he said. “When you're a grants program, you apply for a grant and those are the moneys you get. We can't raise taxes, we can't put a levy on the ballot, so whatever we get, that's what we have to deal with.”

        In March, 170 Hamilton County Head Start teachers, family support advocates, health and nutrition specialists, child care mentors, and support staffers, voted to join Service Employees International Union District 925. They began negotiating their first contract in June.

        Several issues have arisen during talks, said union president Debbie Schneider. One of the biggest is wages.

        Other Head Start agencies have used federal money called “quality funds” to boost pay raises as high as 10-12 percent, she said.

        Workers for Hamilton County Head Start want the program to use more of its quality funds for salaries.

        Hamilton County Head Start does put at least 50 percent of those funds toward wages and benefits as required by law, Mr. Collopy said. But money is needed elsewhere as well.

        For example, Head Start paid for several teachers to receive two-year college degrees so the agency could comply with a new training mandate.

        “People don't realize that the money has to go to lots of things,” Mr. Collopy said. “If we don't have our teachers with certain credentials by a certain year, we're not going to be around.”

        Contract negotiations continue, and both sides will meet with a state-appointed mediator on Wednesday, Ms. Schneider said.

        Meanwhile, workers hope today's rally will get the word out about their plight.

        “We took it upon ourselves to carry out the mission and the vision of this agency, which is to put family and children first, but that mission and vision doesn't include the staff,” said Tomasino Sloan, a Forest Park teacher who says she makes less than $20,000 after 17 years with Head Start.

        “It is really hurtful,” she said, “to see that our children don't get the same head start.”


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