Teachers are being asked to take on more of their health costs in negotiations locally and across Ohio.
Medical coverage is the key issue in talks in several area districts, including Akron, where district and union officials are working feverishly to settle before the new school year.
Teachers historically have been required to pay little or none of their health coverage. Now, with school finances stretched thin by rising costs and flat or decreased state funding, district leaders are telling unions they can't continue to absorb the cost.
In many districts, the raises proposed to teachers would be offset by higher payments for health care. Teachers in the Rootstown school district, which took a strike authorization vote last week, would end up with a pay cut under the district's proposal, said Todd Bragg, the union's president.
''We want to avoid a strike,'' Bragg said. ''We are hopeful we can reach an agreement without that happening.''
Other districts in negotiations with teacher unions include Cuyahoga Falls, Field, Stow-Munroe Falls and Tallmadge. School begins in these districts between Aug. 28 and Sept. 4.
In Akron, where school Please see Talks, A8
starts Aug. 29, a special school board meeting is scheduled for this evening to discuss negotiations. No official action is expected.
Many in the private sector have little sympathy for teachers because they already have been shouldering a substantial portion of their health costs.
Until recently, some teachers have referred to their health insurance as ''free'' because they weren't required to pay for coverage.
When Renee Fambro became deputy director of labor relations of the Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) 21/2 years ago, she was surprised to see the benefits of the teachers unions she was negotiating against. She had previously worked for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, representing the state in negotiations with the troopers union.
''I was shocked that they had the sort of coverage that they did,'' Fambro said. ''There were still districts (where teachers) . . . paid nothing.''
Fambro said districts, which are facing health costs rising an average of 12 percent to 15 percent annually, are pushing for employees to contribute 5 percent to 10 percent of their premiums and to help pay for office visits and prescription drugs. She said this is ''more in line with what other public-sector and private-sector employers offer.''
Michele Prater, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Education Association (OEA), the state's largest teachers union, said the raises teachers are being offered aren't keeping pace with additional health costs.
''That's the main bone of contention with bargaining this summer,'' she said.
Teachers also have extra expenses, including school supplies and education toward a master's degree, that they mostly pay on their own, Prater said.
''This is eating away at teachers' salaries,'' she said.
The result, Prater said, is ''a lot of difficult bargaining going on'' in Northeast Ohio and across the state.
Negotiations are tense in Cuyahoga Falls, Stow-Munroe Falls and Rootstown, where teachers have authorized their teams to issue a strike notice.
A federal mediator is involved with talks in Stow and Rootstown and has been requested in Cuyahoga Falls.
Teachers recently held informational picketing on busy streets in Stow and at a school board meeting last week in Cuyahoga Falls, where one of the signs said, ''Where will your kids be on Aug. 28?'' referring to the district's first day of school.
District and union officials are hoping to avoid strikes. State law requires public school employees to give a 10-day strike notice.
In Cuyahoga Falls, the district wants to make permanent a host of concessions teachers accepted in 2005, when the district was in a financial crisis. The concessions, which saved about $2 million, included increased co-pays for office visits and prescription drugs, the elimination of a team planning period, no additional tutors in larger elementary classrooms, and raises totaling 3.1 percent rather than the planned 6.1 percent over two years.
''It was always presented to us as being temporary concessions,'' said Sue Bell, the teachers union president.
District officials say permanent contract changes are needed. In a May 31 letter to teachers, Superintendent Edwin Holland said, ''The district cannot afford to return to provisions of the contract established under the former administration.''
In Stow, the two sides have made progress in recent sessions on language issues. Economics are still on the table.
''You always have a pull and tug between salary and insurance,'' said Kent Williams, the OEA representative helping with Stow's talks.
Williams said the proposed raises particularly in the first year would be wiped out by higher health costs.
Stow union members plan to attend a school board meeting at 7 tonight at the high school, 3227 Graham Road, to show their concern over the negotiations.
In Rootstown, new Superintendent Andrew Hawkins jumped into contentious negotiations Friday only his third day on the job. He said rising health costs aren't affecting just school districts, but businesses as well.
''It's unfortunate,'' said Hawkins, Rootstown's former high school principal. ''We have a job to be fiscally responsible.''
Some districts quiet
Talks so far have been quiet in Akron, Field and Tallmadge.
In Akron, the area's largest district with more than 2,200 teachers union members, negotiators from both sides have basically been mum on the process.
A May 16 union bulletin refers to ''outrageous proposals from the board to shift health-care costs to employees.'' A July 25 update sounded more optimistic, though it noted that unresolved issues included salary, health care and contract length.
''To date, we have exchanged some proposals that we believe would fairly resolve most of the difficult issues, and that are not out of line with recent settlements in the public sector, including those in school districts in Summit County,'' the update said.
Districts in Summit County that recently settled contracts with teachers include Springfield and Copley-Fairlawn.
Both Field and Tallmadge are conducting a form of negotiation known as ''interest-based bargaining,'' in which each side brings to the table the issues that are important and a federal mediator acts as a moderator.
Williams, the OEA representative for Tallmadge, said the two sides are supposed to work more ''cooperatively'' with this approach.
''It doesn't always work quite as well,'' he said. ''It gets tested when you get into salary and insurance.''
Field Superintendent David Redd said uncertainty about the district's state funding the state budget wasn't resolved until June delayed talks. The teachers' contract expired June 30.
''When you go to the table to negotiate, you have to know how much money you have,'' he said.
The district ended up with a flat amount of state funding, which Redd considers a cut because of increasing costs for health care, fuel and utilities. He said the result of uncertain state funding and rising costs will be shorter union contracts a trend being seen across Ohio, with an increasing number of one-year pacts.
Field's health costs will increase 9.8 percent this year, while fuel expenses will rise 25 percent to 30 percent, Redd said.
''Some of the costs are spiraling out of control,'' he said. ''Something's got to be done to provide some relief. So it's challenging.''