By Peter H. Milliken
and Denise Dick
Youngstown City Schools will open on time after teachers agreed Friday night to work at least through Sept. 30 under terms of their old contract.
Both sides characterized the tone of 41/2 hours of negotiations, which focused entirely on health care, as positive.
The administration consented to the union’s request for an audit of the board of education’s self-funded health-care plan’s finances at union expense, said Helen Matusick, a labor-relations consultant with the Ohio Education Association, of which the YEA is an affiliate.
The board initially asked teachers to agree to pay 15 percent of their health-care premiums, then lowered that request to 12 percent, Matusick said.
The problem teachers have with that is the percentages pertain to an unknown future total premium dollar amount, Matusick explained.
Teachers now pay a percentage of salary toward their health-care premiums: 1.57 percent for family plans and 0.785 percent for the single plan, she said.
“The teachers have for years paid a percentage of salary because it was the fairest way to do it, especially for those at the lower end” of the pay scale, she said. “Going to a percent of the premium would be OK if we knew what the premium was,” she added.
The board and its health-care consultant won’t have that figure until October. That figure will be based on 12 months’ claims history through August.
“Both sides are keeping students at the center of the focus. We want to make sure that school opens and that our students are getting what they need academically,” said Karen Green, assistant superintendent of schools, who characterized the tone of the talks as “positive” and productive.
“School is going to open on time, so students can get ready,” she said.
Neither Green nor board lawyer Ted Roberts would discuss details of the issues in the negotiations.
“The parties want to make sure they have all the information that’s applicable to their negotiations before moving forward on some critical issues, and therefore we are in agreement that we seek that additional information before we continue our discussions,” Roberts said as he emerged from the talks.
“We want to make sure that the community is in the forefront, that the students are in the forefront, and that the education will continue smoothly,” Roberts said.
“The tone — it was cordial, absolutely,” Matusick said of the talks.
Negotiating teams for each side were in separate rooms, with federal mediator Doug Corwon shuttling between them. Only delegations from each team met face to face.
No more negotiations will occur until the health-care plan financial audit is performed, Matusick said.
Friday’s talks were confined to health care, Matusick said. “Salary is still left out there, but until we know what we’re doing with health care, we don’t know what to do with salary,” she explained.
Before Friday’s talks, the union was busy prepping its members for plans if an agreement can’t be reached.
When the two sides met Friday afternoon with a federal mediator, more than 100 teachers showed up outside Choffin Career & Technical Center, where talks were conducted, wearing black or YEA United T-shirts to show support.
They carried signs and posters reading “Teachers Want to Teach” and “Settle Now” and wore buttons bearing “I don’t want to strike, but I will” and “I’m worth more.”
The teachers contract expired June 30, and on Aug. 6, the union authorized its negotiating team to issue a 10-day intent-to-strike notice.
The 10 days pertains to calendar days, so if the teachers had planned to strike on the first day of classes Sept. 3, the notice would have to have been filed today.
But Paula Valentini, a union spokeswoman, said that as long as both as the union and administration continue to talk, the teachers plan to work even without a contract.
Earlier this week, Larry Ellis, president of the 525-member Youngstown Education Association, sent an email to members with information from the union’s crisis team. If there is a strike, the headquarters will be at the YEA office on Rayen Avenue and each school building will need a picket captain, the email said.
Tuesday will be the first day back to work for most teachers, although Youngstown Early College resumed classes Aug. 6 and other teachers already have returned to school for special programs.
“We are implementing a ‘WORK TO RULE’ status,” Ellis’ email says. “This means all bargaining members are to do NOTHING EXTRA! Meet your colleagues in the parking lot in the mornings and walk in TOGETHER at the exact time you are to report. Gather together at the end of the day if possible and walk out to your cars together at the exact time of release. Please do NOT stay late or go early!”
Valentini said work-to-rule means teachers work only their contracted hours.
“We’re hoping our negotiating team — with the negotiating team for the district — can reach a fair and equitable contract,” she said. “We’re teachers. Obviously, we want to do all that we can do for our students.”
Green said she wasn’t aware of Ellis’ email and couldn’t say what the meaning of “work to rule” is.
Ellis’ email says teachers should feel free to go into their classrooms to set up.
“Make sure your YEA sign is visible in the car and wear your YEA shirt while doing it,” it says. “This will show solidarity as well as commitment to your job.”
Wages and health care are the stumbling blocks to an agreement.
Beginning teachers earn $29,885, while senior teachers, or those with 24 years of service and a doctorate, earn about $66,000 annually. The average teacher salary is $53,355.
The last three-year contract provided 1 percent pay increases each year. That followed seven years of freezes on base pay.
Ellis’ email says the Ohio Education Association will provide interest-free loans to YEA members in the event of a strike, and COBRA — Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act — medical benefits will be available.
The union president urges members to attend Tuesday’s school board meeting wearing either black or their YEA T-shirts, and teachers will gather to make posters before the meeting.