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Contract elusive for Lima schools

LIMA, Ohio - As nonteaching employees in the Lima City Schools inch closer to a midnight strike deadline, representatives of both sides say a walkout is the last thing they want.

Negotiators for the school board and the union representing about 200 bus drivers, food service workers, custodians, and secretaries are scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. today for a second session with a federal mediator. Short of a tentative agreement, though, union members said they will hit the picket lines at 17 sites around the city at 12:01 a.m.

“We don't want this for anybody, but we are prepared,” said Sandy Wheeler, a secretary at Lima Senior High School and president of Local 306 of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees.

Kevin Reeks, a spokesman for the 5,328-student school district, said much the same.

“That is the district's hope, that things can come to an amicable resolution, and we can get back to doing what we do,” he said.

Members of OAPSE Locals 137, 306, and 443 have been working without a contract since June 30. Talks that began in the spring have been at an impasse since August, and a federal mediator was brought in last week to try to get the two sides closer together.

Mr. Reeks said the first session with the mediator on Thursday began at 4 p.m. and lasted past midnight.

Ms. Wheeler said the two sides are still miles apart on the issues of wages and insurance benefits. The workers did not receive a raise last year and have to have one this year, she said.

“We gave them a proposal that we felt was the bottom line to help all of our employees get through this crisis of insurance, and they are working on that proposal,” she said. “It's been back and forth, but they currently do not see the need for a fair contract for all of our employees.”

Specifically, she said, food service workers who work fewer than five hours a day have not been eligible for health care benefits for several years.

“Only a certain few of the food service workers that work over five hours are even eligible to participate in the insurance program,” Ms. Wheeler said. “A couple of those ladies actually paid the system to work here because of the cost of the insurance. That's just inexcusable and it's got to change.”

Mr. Reeks said that while the district is involved in a state-supported, multi-million dollar building project, it is financially strapped when it comes to operating expenses. It is among the poorest districts in the state.

“We're No. 608 out of 612 districts, and school funding has not been improved in any way for Ohio's school districts,” he said.

In a letter sent to parents last week, Superintendent John McEwan said that in the event of a strike, school would remain open during regular hours, that food service and security would be provided, but that transportation services “may need to change.”

Mr. Reeks said plans have not been finalized but would depend largely on the outcome of today's bargaining session.

“People will be notified if there are changes. It will just have to be as rapidly as we can do it, which does present some logistics problems,” he said. “The local media will be very important in relaying to the public what the plan is and what you should do.”

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