On Oct. 18, the Garfield Heights Teachers Association of Cleveland’s inner-ring suburbs declared their tentative strike date for Oct. 31. The negotiation committee of the union has attempted to work with the district to create a fair contract since it expired at the end of June. However, the district’s negotiating team rejected all requests to meet with the union’s contract team in-person, refused questions from the negotiating team and demanded a formal contract proposal without discussion.
Per last year’s contract, the starting salary of a first-year teacher at Garfield Heights was $38,097. In contrast, the former superintendent of Garfield Heights in 2019 reported a salary of over $150,000.
“Garfield Heights is the lowest paid school district in Cuyahoga County, and it’s quite a difference,” Susan Hart, spokesperson for the GHTA, told Liberation News at an Oct. 10 solidarity rally outside the board of education. “If you’re a new teacher … you can move on to another school district where you can get a better pay schedule … Even if you love these kids, you need to look out for yourself.”
The low pay relative to administrative costs is just a part of the reason for the strike authorization. In the last year alone, Garfield Heights has lost 46 teachers from a staff of only 200. “Our new teachers didn’t quite feel the support and the respect … They feel support from their colleagues … but they just didn’t feel that support from the administration,” said Hart.
In a letter to the Garfield Heights community on Sept. 30, Terese LePelly, president of the GHTA, stated, ”The district received over $33 million in COVID money. Where has it gone? Our teachers and certified staff have been pushed aside for years. A starting teacher today takes home a few thousand dollars less than a starting teacher in 2007.”
Striking for students
In her letter, LePelly emphasized how the teacher shortage has led to students being denied special education, gym, art and music as these teachers have been required to substitute for missing teaching staff. She also said that Garfield Heights has also not properly funded schools for classroom materials, digital access and the tools needed to meet rising state testing expectations.
A GHTA member stated on a social media post to Garfield Heights parents and families, “I do not take the decision to withhold my services lightly. As an educator, I fully understand the importance of quality education. I believe without a reasonable contract settlement, your child cannot be guaranteed the best and brightest future possible.”
Study after study backs up these claims. The Organization for Economic Coordination and Development compared global student outcomes and cognitive skills by teaching wages in 2015, showing the clear relationship between teacher pay and student performance: Students succeed when their teachers are paid better.
In her interview with Liberation News, Hart repeatedly returned to the refrain that GHTA was seeking success, safety and stability not for the Garfield Heights teachers, but for their students.
A teacher spoke to the crowd later that evening, echoing this sentiment: “That’s why we’re here. Our working conditions, what we do, is the students’ learning conditions. How we work, what we do, and how we do it is how students learn. So we are fulfilling our obligations. We are here for the students. That’s why all of you are here tonight. Please remember that.”
‘When we fight, we win‘
The GHTA has received much community support since the federal mediator was brought in to handle negotiations with the district. Many community businesses now adorn red “We Support Garfield Heights Teachers” yard signs. Maple Heights, Orange and other inner-ring suburban teachers and staff showed up to the solidarity rally Oct. 10. An outpouring of Ohio Educator Association and American Federation of Teachers union members have taken to social media with banners to show their support and solidarity with the GHTA.
A wave of strikes and union activity has spread across the country in recent years. With rising inflation rates and outrageous gas prices while the U.S. government wages imperialist wars abroad, workers have quickly been pushed to the breaking point. In 2022 so far, more workers have gone on strike than in all of 2021. For education workers, the pandemic saw a massive loss of laborers due to lay-offs, death, early retirements and quitting in the face of unacceptable working conditions, exacerbating the educational disparities across the United States.
Jeff Wensing, OEA vice president, spoke at the solidarity rally. “The day [Columbus] went back to negotiate after they had walked the line for a couple of days, the board attorney looked across at them and said, ‘We never thought that you would strike. Why didn’t you just work to the rule?’ And the union president said, ‘Because our members told us not to!’ … We have your back, all the way. Stay together, and solidarity!” he said.
If negotiations do not continue and a fair contract is not developed, GHTA expects to strike on Oct. 31. Hart appealed for public support: “What we are asking people to do is to let our board of education know that it is important for us to keep moving forward with negotiations, to be able to reach a tentative agreement.”
Feature photo: Solidarity Rally outside Garfield Heights Board of Education on Oct. 10. Attendees wear red to support education workers. Liberation photo