August 22, 2014

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Columbia school employees OK strike

COLUMBIA TWP. — Bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other non-teaching staff in the Columbia school district plan to strike at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 7.

Children will be safely delivered to school that day prior to the strike’s start, said Lloyd Rains, regional director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees.

The reason for the strike is the board’s refusal to continue health insurance for new hires working less than 32 hours a week, which includes many of the bus drivers, Rains said.

“We were given the board’s last best offer,” Rains said. “It’s a take it or leave it situation, and we’re not accepting it.”

Rains hand-delivered the notice Friday morning to Superintendent John Kuhn and that prompted the school board to call a meeting Friday afternoon.

The three board members present authorized Kuhn to hire substitute staff to fill in during the strike.

“Mr. Kuhn has been authorized to do what he has to do to keep the schools open,” school board president Cheryl Blazek said.

Kuhn said he was working with a management company that deals with work stoppages, but he declined to elaborate on his plans or name the company.

In the school district, OAPSE represents bus drivers, monitors, secretaries, aides, special-needs aides, mechanics, and cafeteria and maintenance workers. There are 47 employees; 37 of whom are represented by the union, Rains said.

The union has been without a contract since July 2006. There are no negotiation sessions scheduled.

The strike upset parents who said they worry about how their children will get to school.

“I think it stinks they don’t have a contract yet,” said Coleen Barta, who was dropping off books to the library Friday afternoon. “The bus drivers really go above and beyond the call of duty.”

For example, Barta said a bus driver recently made sure that her son got to an alternate drop-off site, even though that wasn’t even her route. Barta said she was unsure what she would do in light of the strike.

“I don’t want my kids to miss school, but I do want to support the drivers,” she said.

Bus driver Lauri Snyder said she and other employees are resigned to the strike, but it will be very difficult.

“Nobody’s happy — nobody wants to strike,” Snyder said.

While current drivers would retain their benefits under the new contract, they could be stripped in a subsequent contract, she said.

“You can’t have the haves and have nots,” Snyder said. “It will affect us.”

In time, newly hired employees without benefits would serve on the negotiating team and bargain away the benefits being paid to current employees, Snyder said.

If that happened, Snyder said she would have to quit. “I have to have health benefits for my family,” she said.

She said she earns about $15 an hour and works from 6 to 8:45 a.m. and 1:45 to 4 p.m. — or about 20 hours a week excluding field trips.

“The hours make it almost impossible to get a second job,” Snyder said.

Like Sawyer, Rains said the two-tier system would create all kinds of problems.

He said OAPSE employees are willing to accept concessions that Columbia teachers did last year when they agreed upon a new contract. The teachers’ contract included raises ranging from 2 to 3 percent. And, like teachers, Rains said they are willing to pay about 8 percent of their monthly insurance premiums.

“Part of the problem is that our members don’t understand why they are being targeted by a district that is financially sound, continues to pay administrators a portion of their retirement and have not asked any other group of employees to totally eliminate benefits,” Rains said.

Columbia residents shopping Friday night at the Schild’s IGA in nearby Eaton Township said they were upset about the prospect of a strike.

“You’re not going to get anyone hired, and you’re going to overwork the ones they already have,” said Barbara Bene about the district’s plan to withhold benefits.

Another woman, the mother of two high school students, said she thought the school board was making a mistake.

“The people at the top are getting the money and the people at the bottom are getting the shaft,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Columbia resident Joe Dzurinda, a computer programmer, said he buys his own health insurance for $500 a month “and I get garbage for that.”

“Everyone wants to cut costs, but I think they should have their benefits,” he said.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.