Tempers flared Tuesday night at the Toledo Board of Education meeting, as simmering tensions between employees and the district over negotiations became public, foreshadowing a likely contentious battle over requested employee pay and rights concessions.
Dozens of teachers donning union shirts filled the Thurgood Marshall Building on East Manhattan Boulevard in a show of solidarity over discontent with district proposals for steep pay cuts and an overhaul of the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement. The flashpoint came when board president Bob Vasquez called for the meeting to move into executive session so board members could be advised on negotiations by the district’s legal counsel. Francine Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, strenuously objected to the move, because union leaders had not yet had a chance to comment.
The two started to speak over each other, their voices raised.
“We are taking offense to your sequence,” Ms. Lawrence said.
Mr. Vasquez said the board should move immediately into closed session because they are paying their attorney to sit in a room, and Ms. Lawrence retorted by asserting the attorney is being paid nearly $150,000. Mr. Vasquez pounded his gavel and again called for a vote.
His fellow board members, however, sided with Ms. Lawrence. Larry Sykes, Brenda Hill and Lisa Sobecki voted against moving to executive session before comment by union chiefs; Jack Ford did not attend the meeting.
The crowd erupted in applause.
Don Yates, president of the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel, thanked Ms. Lawrence for “standing up for our opportunity to speak,” and then criticized district negotiators for what he called their unwillingness to negotiate. Then Ms. Lawrence, before assailing the district’s negotiation tactics, acknowledged Lucas County sheriff’s deputies in the board meeting room.
“Is the deputy here to protect you from us, or to protect us from you?” Ms. Lawrence said.
“He’s here to protect everyone,” Mr. Vasquez said.
The meeting started with a more congenial tone. Scott High School students Fred Hitt and Denzel Moore, along with their families, were lauded by the board after being featured in a Blade series on the Toledo public education system. Superintendent Jerome Pecko also thanked a lengthy list of experienced employees who are retiring.
But Ms. Lawrence said many of those retirements were due to the climate in the district; so far this year, 200 teachers have put in for retirement. Paraprofessional Nancy Lindsey is leaving after 36 years in Toledo schools, but said during the board’s executive session that she didn’t want to retire now.
“I feel like I’m being pushed out,” she said.
She pointed to the pay cuts asked for by the district, along with efforts at the state level to curb collective bargaining rights for public employees. And she said educators in Toledo are starting to prepare for the worst, including a possible strike.
While Ms. Lawrence didn’t go so far, she did warn of the hostile climate brewing in the district.
“Let’s see how well you can run this school system when your transformation is doing it to us,” Ms. Lawrence told the board, “instead of doing it with us.”
The district’s proposal calls for 10 percent pay cuts for teachers, increasing to 20 percent the amount teachers pay for their health insurance, the elimination of certain positions, and the ceding of numerous employee rights to management. The proposed cuts are part of the district’s attempt to close multimillion dollar budget gaps.
The teachers’ union made an informal counter proposal, though its details have not yet been publicly released. Mr. Vasquez said Tuesday, however, that he has not seen a written proposal by the union.
“I don’t know how you can negotiate (without a formal counter proposal),” he said.
District and teacher representatives met in a lengthy negotiation session Tuesday, but Ms. Lawrence said no progress has been made between the two sides. The current contract with teachers expires June 30.
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