Columbiana teachers pack board meeting

COLUMBIANA – For the second time this summer the Columbiana Education Association (CEA) turned out in full force for the regular board of education meeting.

The group of about 50 sat silently throughout the meeting until two district parents spoke on their behalf.

The union is still without a new contract and their most recent two-year contract expired on June 30. Association President Julie McClish said they are set to mediate with the board today. If an agreement is reached a special board meeting will be called to approve the new contract before school starts Aug. 26.

If a new contract is not in place by then union members will begin the year working under the stipulations of their expired contract, or they have the option to strike. Under that contract teachers agreed to a total wage freeze, with step increases only in the second year.

Columbiana graduate and district parent Wendy Pancake asked the board why teachers weren’t allowed raises when administrators were, and accused the district of being fiscally irresponsible.

Before listing off examples of that irresponsibility she blasted the board for a new policy that prohibits public input during meetings without five days notice.

She called the policy “ridiculous” and said the notice is “illogical” since people wanting to speak don’t even have access to the meeting agenda that early.

“I feel that you as a board are obviously discouraging public participation, so what is there to hide, or why don’t you want to hear from the public on issues that are important and affect our schools?” she asked.

She then said some of the issues the board could be “hiding” are that teachers have taken the pay and benefit cuts while administrators received 3.5 percent raises.

Referring to the $4 million bond issue the district is seeking on Nov. 5 for improvements at South Side Middle School (the main being the replacement of the roof), she said, “You don’t have the money to replace a leaky roof, give our teachers a pay raise after they have taken years of pay freezes, but you have the money to give our administrators raises even while our teachers were taking pay freezes?”

She also said the district was fiscally irresponsible by using general fund money on improvements that shouldn’t have been priority, such as “splurging” on a new gymnasium for Joshua Dixon Elementary and resurfacing the middle and high school gym floors and carpeting locker rooms.

“If I had to make the decision to resurface my hardwood floors or fix a leaky roof at my house, there would be no doubt that I would start with the roof,” she said.

She also was not pleased with the possible rehiring of Treasurer Lori Posey listed on the meeting agenda.

Posey retired on Aug. 1 and the rehiring is retroactive to that date. She was first hired as treasurer in 1994 and was making $89,932 a year on the latest contract.

Posey did not speak during the meeting, but said afterwards she had no intentions to retire, but opted to after being approached by the board and knowing it would result in a savings to the district.

She said her original 4.5-year contract would have automatically rolled over had she not retired, and it included a 3.5 percent increase that would have bumped her salary to $93,000 this year.

She also said if she waited another two years to retire those benefits would have increased.

She explained the retire/rehire is saving the district about $30,000 over the next two years because under the new contract her salary is being cut by about $7,000 a year and is a $10,000 difference from the $93,000 a year she was on track to receive.

According to a copy of the new contract, her salary may be increased over the two years, but “in no event shall she be paid less than the salary she is presently receiving.”

The contract was provided by Pancake who said during the meeting that when a teacher retires and is rehired they are only paid at the base salary, which she noted is usually about half of their pay.

The union applauded several times during her speech, and also when district parent Michael Clark spoke on their behalf.

“I know that as a board you see the value that each teacher brings to our schools. I hope they can start this year knowing they have a contract in place. I would hope both sides can come together giving them the contract that they deserve,” Clark said.

Board President Kelly Witmer said that as a district parent and member of the board she makes decisions that benefit the district as a whole.

“Unfortunately, in this day and age it all comes down to the dollar. No matter how much anybody wants to say differently, and unfortunately, there is never enough dollars for everyone,” she said.

She also said she is upset there is a “misconception” that the board is “not willing to work with the teachers. We care about you guys, let’s make it work.”

After the meeting she noted that 84 percent of teachers received pay raises last year with their steps and 16 percent are already at the top of the pay scale.

Board member Mark Hutson defended the new public comment policy and said he also makes decisions to benefit the entire district.

“We just want a little bit of notice so we know what is it. Just so everybody knows, public comment means just that: comment. It is not debate. That doesn’t normally serve any purpose whatsoever. You want to address us, that’s fine, but it doesn’t mean we are going to debate every action that we have taken in the past or might take in the future,” he said.