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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Voters reject local tax hike during school strike

It has been a rough week for the Richmond Heights, OH school district union. On Tuesday, during a strike of the district's unionized employees that began May 2, residents voted down a tax issue that would have kept the union financially flush for the next two school years. Ten of the 68 teachers have reported to work.

Predictably, administrators and the union are blaming each other for the second failed attempt at a school tax. Superintendent Walter Calinger called the timing of the strike "hurtful and harmful" to the tax issue's chances of passing.

"Prior to that time, I believed we really had a good chance," he said Wednesday.

The tax defeat was the community's way of sending a message to the administration, said union spokeswoman Andrea Manes.

"The public wants to see a change and to see some responsibility before they pass a levy," she said.

It's the latest round of blame and insults lobbed back and forth as the two sides wait for a federal mediator's call to return to the negotiating table. Talks broke off Sunday.

Much of the disagreement involves contract language on such issues as the length of a teacher's work day. Also, the union doesn't like the district's demand for a two-year probationary period for new teachers. And the district doesn't like the union's demand for a 3 percent pay raise.

Each side has used Internet Web sites to refute claims by the other.

A union flier tells parents they can keep their children home this week while state achievement tests are given. It includes the line: "The achievement tests do not affect the child's grade or promotion . . . it does, however, affect the superintendent's compensation package."

One of the district's daily news releases responds by stating that "this clearly demonstrates that the priorities of the union are out of step with those of the district and the larger Richmond Heights community."

Meanwhile, frustration is mounting for parents and students.

Pam Claudio was among about 150 people at a rally last Friday supporting striking workers.

"Everybody is looking for it to go through the end of the school year," Claudio said of the strike. Her four children are enrolled in the district.

Chris Kern's 10th-grade biology class watched a movie on global warming last week instead of studying protease inhibitors as they would have with their regular teacher.

The 54 substitutes are being paid $175 a day - twice the amount of the district's regular substitute teachers. They may be qualified on paper but seem to lack experience, Chris said.

"One of the teachers didn't know what class they were assigned to," he said.

A veteran mediator says both sides must keep distractions to a minimum and must be willing to compromise for talks to be successful.

Jack Buettner, regional director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said mediators strive to relay a message: "Let's concentrate on the bargaining process. Set all of that aside, or else it's not going to be resolved."