YOUNGSTOWN SCHOOLS From priest to president of the teachers union
The new president said the union needs more young people to take active roles.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- A dozen years ago, Will Bagnola traded in his vestments and chalice for a necktie and chalkboard, making the transition from Catholic priest to public school teacher.
This year, he makes another shift, leaving the classroom to take over the presidency of the Youngstown Education Association, the largest teachers union in the Mahoning Valley.
"The [union] needs more people, particularly young people, to come forward," Bagnola, 43, said. "I've only been teaching 12 years, so I'm probably looked at as a younger teacher. I'd like to think that some people might see that I've stepped forward to be active and they might choose to do the same thing."
Bagnola and the leaders of other employee unions in the city school district plan to meet with board of education members Tuesday afternoon in what is being called a "Get Acquainted Reception."
The session's focus is to discuss the improving academic achievement, but it also could serve as an informal launch of what both sides hope is another round of smooth contract negotiations.
The pact for the school district's 800 teachers expires September 2003, and negotiations begin in earnest this winter.
After a decade of labor unrest that resulted in two bitter teacher strikes, the union and administration settled the current contract in May 2000, nearly four months before the expiration date.
It was the earliest the two sides had settled a contract in at least 30 years, and leaders on both sides hailed it as a new era of labor relations.
Bagnola was the union's chief negotiator on that contract and said he hopes for smooth going and possibly an early settlement again this time.
"Nothing's guaranteed," he added. "It takes two to tango."
Nontraditional career path
Bagnola's path to the union presidency has been anything but traditional.
A native of Canton who graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1977, Bagnola attended Kent State University for a year before enrolling in a seminary in Cincinnati to become a Catholic priest.
Three years later, he graduated from a Columbus seminary with a bachelor's degree in history and spent the next four years studying in Rome, earning a master's degree in theology.
When he returned to Ohio, he was ordained a priest and served five years in St. Rose Parish in Girard and Holy Family Parish in Poland.
"I felt called in other directions," he said. "Ultimately, I think I was called to have a family."
So he left the active ministry and started teaching social studies at South High School in Youngstown in 1990.
He met his future wife at South and now has three children and no regrets leaving the priesthood.
"I'm maybe hopeful, though, that at sometime in the future, that I, if I felt ready, could return," he said.
When South closed in 1993, he moved to The Rayen School, then to East High School, then Woodrow Wilson High School, then back to Rayen, then to East, back to Rayen again and then to Chaney High School two years ago.
"I was the youngest person in seniority, so anytime there was a shift, it affected me," he said.
After earning a law degree from the University of Akron two years ago, he started thinking about the union presidency and defeated incumbent president Sherri Morgan in a close election in May.
Bagnola said the challenges facing Youngstown teachers are many.
"Our students bring a lot of baggage with them," he said. "Accepting the kids where they are and doing the best we can with what we have and with what they have, that's the day-in, day-out challenge."
The union's job is making sure teachers "are in the best situations in their classrooms as they can be," he said.
"Our working environment is the students' learning environment," he said. "So, what's best for the teacher ultimately is best for the kids.
"The vast majority of teachers across the board, and certainly in Youngstown, are in it because we're concerned for kids and we want to work with kids. Anything that can be done for us is going to benefit the kids."