Stalled: Board, NREA at impasse in contract negotiations after 10 months at table

North Ridgeville

By Michael Fitzpatrick

Things are starting to get a little testy. That might be the best way to describe the negotiations between the North Ridgeville School Board and the North Ridgeville Education Association, the union that represent the district’s teachers.

Teachers have been working under an old contract this school year after the last three-year deal expired on July 1, 2016.

Both sides met seven or eight times and came to agreements on many issues, but reached an impasse when it came to teacher salaries and benefits, according to Superintendent Jim Powell.

Teachers and residents in support of the teachers turned out en masse for the Jan. 21 board meeting. At one point during the meeting, Board Member Marci Saxon repeatedly interrupted resident Al Qahwash who spoke in support of increasing teacher’s pay, asking him if he knew how state funding in education worked in relation to public schools.

At that point, McCarthy told the board it needed to “listen to understand and not respond.”

The union believes its members are underpaid when compared to other districts in the county regarding base pay. Teachers start out at $35,000 a year in North Ridgeville according to the union, which would put them at No. 7 out of the 14 districts.

According to NREA president Mike Montgomery, the board is arguing that if a teacher spends his or her career in the district, their career earnings would rank in the middle of the pack when compared to other districts in the county.

Montgomery said because teachers in the district start out at such a low paygrade, they are more likely to jump to another district when they have the chance, so very few teachers are spending a career in the district to realize the career earnings figure being touted by the board in the negotiations.

Of the schools in the Southwestern Conference, the athletic conference North Ridgeville plays in, the starting pay for teachers ranks ninth out of the 10.

According to figures released by the NREA, here are rankings for starting salaries for districts in Lorain County:

Avon Lake, $38,735

Avon, $38,370

Amherst, $37,691

Lorain, $37,491

Elyria, $37,235

Clearview, $36,350

Oberlin, $36,313

Firelands, $35,810

North Ridgeville, $35,000

Columbia, $34,824

Midview, $34,741

Sheffield/Sheffield Lake, $33,871

Wellington, $33,561

Vermilion, $32,688

District Superintendent Jim Powell said the board did present what it considered to be a fair offer to the NREA negotiations team when factoring in it has a duty to be financially responsible to the public at large.

“The board has made an offer to the NREA that they are quite proud of and it’s quite a fair offer. But they still would like more,” Powell said. “We’ve given them our offer and we can’t go any farther or it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible.”

The union believes the cash is available and cites the $9.8 million the district has in cash reserves.
Montgomery contends the Ohio Department of Education only mandates a district have one to two months of operating expenses in reserve, or in North Ridgeville’s case, $6.5 million. Currently, the district has $9.8 million in reserves. Montgomery contends the board could satisfy the salary demands of the NREA as well as those of the union which represents the district’s non-union employees, who have been going on three-and-half years since its last contract expired.

Powell said the three-month reserve figure has been established as a line of demarcation by the district because if the reserves drop below that number, it indicates the district’s expenditures are greater than its revenues.

The board promised after the passage of an operating levy in 2012 and a bond issue to build the new grades 3-through-8 building it would not go back to the voters for more money for 10 years.

The board did ask voters to pass a levy to help upgrade technology last year, but it was defeated. The district framed that levy as not a new request for money but just a replacement for a previous tax measure, which was about to expire.

Montgomery said another frustration for union members revolves around the thousands of dollars the district spends in training its incoming teachers, only to have that investment “wasted” when those teachers leave for a higher-paying job. He said the training program is one of the best of its kind but the district is ultimately just training teachers to leave for new districts. In recent years, Montgomery said, at least 30 teachers have resigned to take jobs at other higher-paying districts.

A strike at this point does not seem imminent, Montgomery said.

“We are closer to settling than striking,” he said.

Powell, for his part, is taking a very diplomatic approach.

“We value our teachers. We have great teachers in our classrooms and some of the best in the country. We have the highest respect for them and they do a great job for our students and our community,” Powell said.

And while key leaders in the negotiations are saying all the right things, Erin King, spokesperson for the NREA and a teacher in the district, said concern among teachers is growing.

“As the negotiations have been drawn out, it has made the staff feel unappreciated and just kind of confused. We have all these cool things going on in the district, specifically the new middle school and the STEM school. There is a lot of stuff to be excited about in this district, yet it feels we aren’t part of it,” said King.

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