By Harold Gwin
YOUNGSTOWN — Only about one-third of the tri-county school districts have signed on to participate in the federal Race to the Top (RttT) grant program.
Some, like Youngstown, were unable to get their teachers unions to sign a memorandum of understanding required for the program, an agreement that the unions say would violate their collective bargaining agreements.
The memorandums required the signatures of the superintendent, the president of the school board and the president of the teachers union, except in cases of charter schools without teachers unions.
Some districts, such as Poland, opted not to participate because they would see little, if any, financial benefit from the program, even if Ohio is successful in securing funds.
Youngstown’s teachers union has come under some criticism for declining to sign the memorandum.
The district is in fiscal emergency, and members of the state fiscal oversight commission controlling district finances were critical of the Youngstown Education Association’s position, suggesting that Youngstown could perhaps get as much as $4 million through the program.
How can the district move forward if all parties won’t work together, commission member June Johnson asked during a commission meeting Thursday. Failure to work out some agreement on this issue is “unconscionable,” she said.
“I couldn’t agree more,” said commission member Paul Marshall.
William Bagnola, union president, said some of the conditions included in the memorandum would violate the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement.
Staffing of schools in Youngstown is done now through seniority and certification, Bagnola said. The RttT program would require that “effective” teachers be placed in high- poverty, high-minority schools, essentially bypassing the teachers’ contract, he said.
Teacher unions object to having their evaluations tied to student performance, particularly when student performance is affected by conditions beyond a teacher’s control, Bagnola said, citing poverty as an example. Coming to school hungry because there is no food in the home is a significant factor in student performance, he said. Youngstown has a poverty rate of nearly 90 percent.
Teachers can use the best practices in education, but they can’t control the children taking the tests, he said.
The union also objects to a plan to phase out and close or replace schools ranked in the lowest 5 percent of academic performance, he said.
Robert Zorn, Poland superintendent, said the fact that only about 40 percent of Ohio’s public school districts have signed up validates Poland’s position.
Ohio is competing with the other states for a piece of the $4.3 billion RttT funds being made available to improve student achievement and hopes to get as much as $400 million from the program. However, there is no guarantee that it will get anything, and first-round funding won’t be announced until April.
Funding will follow the Title I federal guidelines, which means districts that have high percentages of low-income students would get the largest portions.
In Poland’s case, the district would only be entitled to $10,000 or $12,000, which wouldn’t even pay for one-third of a teacher, Zorn said.
The program is designed for low-achieving schools and Poland, rated as excellent by the state, likely wouldn’t qualify anyway, he said.
Dennis Dunham, superintendent at South Range, said he and the school board president there were willing to sign, but the teachers’ union wasn’t.
South Range, also rated as excellent by the state, wouldn’t get much money anyway if it qualified, but it’s important to find any money that is available for education, Dunham said.
School district’s weren’t given much time to get a memorandum signed, he said, pointing out that the state notice came right at the holiday break, and schools were back in session only four days before the state deadline.
Kathryn Hellweg, Warren superintendent, said she and the school board president signed the memorandum but the teachers union didn’t, adding that she is “extremely disappointed” that Warren won’t be considered for funding. The district could have secured more than $1 million through the program if Ohio is funded, she said.
Hellweg said charter schools had an unfair advantage in joining the program because they weren’t required to get teacher signatures. (Most charter schools have no teacher unions.)
The vagueness of the agreement teacher unions were being asked to sign raised concerns, said Peggy Palma, Ohio Education Association representative for school districts in Mahoning and part of Trumbull County. They were essentially being asked to sign a blank contract, she said.
Many of the districts that did sign only agreed on the condition that they will have an opportunity to opt out if necessary before the program goes into effect this summer, Palma said. Across the state only about 260 of more than 600 school districts have signed on, she said.
Participation will require significant expenditure of time and talent devoted to composing the required plan, and much of the funding is tied to professional development classes for teachers rather than materials for students, she said.
Race to the Top
Only 16 of 45 public school districts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties have signed up for the federal Race to the Top grant program. Ten of the 18 local charter schools have also enrolled. Those who have joined are:
Academy of Arts & Humanities
Eagle Heights Academy
Life Skills Center of Trumbull County
Life Skills Center of Youngstown
Mahoning County High School
Mahoning Unlimited Classroom
Mollie Kessler School
Stambaugh Charter Academy
Youngstown Academy of Excellence
Youngstown Community School.
Source: Ohio Department of Education