Public school will test teachers' solidarity

Children in Columbia Station (OH)'s public schools could be meeting new bus drivers, custodians and cafeteria workers soon after the start of the new year.

The union representing non-teaching staff is threatening to strike starting Jan. 7, and district officials intend to keep schools operating without them.

"Right now, that is our plan," said John Kuhn, superintendent of the Columbia School District. "The board has authorized me to do what's necessary to keep the schools open."

Local 4 of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees handed Kuhn a 10-day strike notice on Friday. The union represents 37 custodians, secretaries, special-needs aides, bus drivers, monitors and cafeteria workers, but the contract would affect 47 employees, Rains said.

In a prepared statement, school board President Cheryl Blazek noted that teachers are represented by a different union and are expected to be at work Jan. 7.

The union is upset with the school board's plan to discontinue benefits for part-time workers, which includes most of the bus drivers, said Lloyd Rains, OAPSE regional director.

Rains said the board's final offer eliminates health insurance and retirement benefits for new hires working less than 32 hours a week.

Current union members would retain their benefits, he said, but workers fear the absence of benefits for new hires would forever diminish their job status.

"A bus driver starts her day at 5:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m., even though it's considered part-time," Rains said. "The incentive is health insurance. Once they eliminate that incentive, your hires become transient. That's unacceptable to our current members, most of whom live in Columbia Station."

Kuhn said he would abide by an agreement with the union not to discuss contract talks. He conceded the board is seeking to cut benefits, but he added, "I think the negotiation is more complex than that."

Rains said a federal mediator is trying to set up another negotiating session before the strike date.

The workers, who have been without a contract since July 2006, are threatening to walk out at 9:30 a.m. Monday, Jan. 7, just after bus drivers deliver their passengers to school.

The school board met in emergency session Friday to discuss the strike notice and instructed Kuhn to hire substitute staff to ensure the buses roll and the schools stay open.

Kuhn would not elaborate on how he plans to fill the posts of striking workers.

The district, in eastern Lorain County, has about 1,100 students attending a high school, a middle school and an elementary school.


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