Saturday, November 23, 2002

Sycamore teachers talking strike

Disputes include pay raise, insurance

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Sycamore High School teachers Cheralyn Jardine (from left), Steve Imhoff, Laura Fibbe and Rosemary Ennis discuss strike options at the school Friday with a reporter.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
SYCAMORE TWP. - Teachers here are the highest paid in Hamilton County, and they say they're worth every penny.

Year after year, they help produce high-achieving students, a perfect state report card and double-digit numbers of National Merit semifinalists.

But now, they're battling the district over rising health care costs and other issues.

Their differences escalated this week when teachers, who have been without a contract since July 31, rejected the board's latest proposal and took an "intent to strike" vote. That puts the district on notice that a strike vote could be imminent.

Some 440 of the district's 500 teachers belong to the teachers union. If teachers strike, it would be a first for this 6,000-student district, home to many affluent professionals.

"Nobody wants to strike," said Rosemary Ennis, a Sycamore High School history teacher. "Our (health) insurance has gone up dramatically. We're willing to pay more because we understand the problem with insurance; but, at the same time, we don't want our pay raise reduced by the insurance."

Teachers say they are only asking to balance significant increases in health insurance with a consistent pay raise. Under the current insurance plan, teachers expect the cost of the district's policy will increase about 23 percent a year.

The board is offering a 4 percent salary increase a year for three years. Teachers want 4.75 percent the first year, then 4.5 percent a year for the next two years. They say it's comparable with raises in other local school districts.

Three issues separate the Sycamore Community School Board and its teachers. Health insurance is the primary sticking point.
Teachers: Want the board to pay 85 percent of the premium (teachers would pay 15 percent).
Board: Wants to maintain the current level of health insurance benefits for the three years of the contract. The board now pays 90 percent of the premium and teachers pay 10 percent up to a cap, then the board pays 80 percent and teachers pay 20 percent.
Teachers: Propose 4.75 percent increase the first year, then 4.5 percent each year for two years.
Board: Last offer was 4 percent each year for three years.
Teachers: Want nonunion teachers to pay a "fair share" fee for the services they receive, such as negotiating and legal help if needed. They say paying the fee does not require teachers to join the union.
Board: Says a "fair share" fee essentially requires nonunion teachers to join the union. The board says teachers should have a choice.
"Depending on a teacher's placement on the pay scale, some of us will find that over a three-year period, the 4 percent raise will only just barely, and in some instances not at all, cover the (health) increases,'' said Cheri Wilhelm, a fifth-grade teacher at E.H. Greene Intermediate School.

"To accept the board's current proposal would mean just `breaking even' for a large proportion of the staff."

The board contends that under its offer, Sycamore teachers will receive a salary increase ranging from $2,232 to $4,954 in the first year of the contract alone.

"This would easily exceed this year's $529 increase in family plan insurance. Teachers who take individual insurance plans would pay even less," the board said in a flier.

With an average annual salary of $56,710, Sycamore teachers are the highest-paid teachers in Hamilton County and among the highest in the state.

Cheralyn Jardine, a high school journalism teacher, said most high school teachers arrive at 6 a.m., and many are still there at 11 p.m. It's that dedication, in partnership with students and parents, that has propelled the district to success, she said.

Teachers point to the latest salary increase for Superintendent Karen Mantia, 10 percent last year, and a $35 million cash balance as a sign of the district's financial health.

"The most important thing in any of these kids' lives is not whether they have x number of computers and this type of weight room," said Bryan Jones, a biology and chemistry teacher at Sycamore Junior High. "It comes down to quality teachers. They attract the best teachers here, and it's because of the salary. I didn't go into teaching to make money, but if I'm in a district that has the money, we should be sending a message that teachers are valued."

Board President Charles Wilfong said when the board searched for a new superintendent 2 years ago, it discovered Sycamore was nowhere near the top for administrative salaries.

"We were finding it difficult to attract quality candidates. We realized a good piece of that was compensation. We hired our new superintendent at a rate (about $99,000) we felt was appropriate, but we also knew over a period of time we were going to have to become more competitive.''

The district's $35 million cash balance enables the board to postpone putting an operating levy on the ballot until 2004, Mr. Wilfong said.

"We always have to keep some cash in our coffers. We've been building up cash because of the uncertainty of what state funding is going to do. ... If we don't have cash to continue programs already implemented, we're going to have to start canceling programs. We feel it's more important to maintain programs than give the money away," Mr. Wilfong said.

Negotiations have been going on since March.

Teachers are trying to drum up support in the community. Last weekend, they went door-to-door distributing 9,000 fliers making their case and encouraging residents to attend last Wednesday's board meeting.

They wear small laminated signs around their necks that say, "I am working without a contract."

In each building, teachers are sticking to their contracted hours and not putting in additional time. When the bell rings, they leave as a group to show solidarity.

The two sides are planning to negotiate again but haven't set a date. If a strike occurs, however, the district has vowed to keep schools open with fully certified teachers.


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