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Youngstown teachers hit the picket line on what was supposed to be the first day of school

Youngstown teachers gathered outside school buildings like Chaney Middle School Wednesday to protest, arguing they need a new, fair contract in order to create the best learning environment for students.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Youngstown teachers gathered outside school buildings like Chaney Middle School Wednesday to protest, arguing they need a new, fair contract in order to create the best learning environment for students.

Teachers gathered outside Youngstown City School District buildings Wednesday, walking off the job after they were unable to come to terms on a new contract with the district after months of negotiations.

Supporters honked horns as the drove past teachers chanting the initials of the Youngstown Education Association teachers union, outside Chaney Middle School. While the protest was peaceful all day, the union reported one picketing teacher was struck by a car driven by an administrator in the parking lot of Volney Rogers Elementary School around 2 p.m. The teacher was taken to the hospital by ambulance with non-life-threatening injuries. Police responded to the scene, but it's not clear if it was an accident or if charges will be filed. The school district has not yet responded to a request for comment on the incident.

"As we’ve been saying all along, we should have never been in the situation anyway," teachers union spokesperson Jim Courim said in a release. "I would like the Board and administration to explain to the community how Youngstown’s students benefitted from a school administrator doing what he did today. What is the actual goal of this Board and administration?"

Earlier in the day, Courim said teachers were looking for a fair contract, which is less about pay and more about giving teachers more control over their students’ education to create a better work environment.

"We want to revisit some of these things, adjust them, change them, eliminate them because it affects our working conditions," he said. "As the back of my shirt says, 'Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.'"

The district does not plan on returning to the bargaining table this week, meaning no resolution is likely soon, said district superintendent Jeremy Batchelor.

The district believes the strike is unlawful and is waiting on a hearing from the State Employee Relations Board, likely set for Friday, he said. It's arguing the union should have agreed to work with a third-party fact-finder first before declaring a strike.

Meanwhile, the district has pushed back the start of the school year until Friday and switched learning to remote-only. Today and Thursday, staff are distributing laptops students can use to log on for classes, along with free breakfasts and lunches, at school buildings like Chaney.

Teachers outside Chaney, however, encouraged parents not to pick up the Chromebooks on offer from the district, arguing it will just serve to prolong the strike and will only serve as a poor replacement for education in the classroom.

"The administration has kind of said, 'it’s going to be like during the pandemic.' Well, no it’s not," Courim said, "because we actually had teachers teaching during the pandemic, not an online program that they (students) are just trying to self-pace."

Substitute teachers and administrators will also help lead those online lessons, Batchelor said. The district by law is required to educate students regardless of what's happening.

"We understand that that's not an ideal situation, but we do want to have some option for our scholars to be able to engage in some kind of learning while we try to work this out," he said.

The district and union are still "far apart" on wages, alleging teachers are seeking a 4.89% raise this year — 2.89 percentage points greater than the increase of 2% the district has proposed, according to Batchelor.

The union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state due to Batchelor talking about specifics of the negotiations so publicly, Courim said.

Both sides say they want to come to an agreement. But the district is also sticking to its guns on contract language that allows school administrators to place teachers in roles and buildings where the district feels teachers will best serve students. Batchelor said the union wants teachers' seniority to be taken into account.

"We believe as a district that is in distress, that has struggled academically, we can't operate like it's 1985," he said.

Youngstown is one of two districts in Northeast Ohio still under state control after years of academic struggles. Lorain was just released from state control in the recent state budget. Some of the contract language under negotiation is required for the school district's attempt to return from state control, Batchelor argued.

But the union argues that a top-down approach is no longer working for teachers or their students, and is one of the reasons why the district has been slow to improve students' test scores and other markers of growth.

"When we're talking about professional development for teachers, we would like to have a say in that," he said. "When we're talking about intervention for our students, we'd like to have a say in that we know best how our students learn. And so we would like a seat at the table so that we can talk about that with them, because otherwise... we're giving them something that maybe they (students) have zero interest in."

Some parents who stopped by the strike on Wednesday showed their support for their teachers but said they hope the strike ends soon. Jessica Maxwell has three kids in the district, and she said online learning won’t do them any good.

"My kids are special needs. They can't learn anything online," she said. "They need the teachers to be hands-on, face-to-face. Computers are ridiculous. It defeats the whole purpose of everything."

The pandemic and online learning during that time period set her children back immensely, she said. But hard work from her children's teachers has begun to change that.

Kitty Montero, school nurse at Chaney Middle School, was passing out food and Chromebooks to students Wednesday outside the school. Families and students suffered greatly on the mental health front during the pandemic, which has caused new behavioral challenges for educators and all school staff, she said. She declined to comment specifically on the negotiations between the school district and teachers but said she could understand why teachers are seeking changes, in light of those new challenges.

"I just hope they can get matters resolved quickly," she said, "and we can all come back and be a family again and get these kids back in here."

Updated: August 23, 2023 at 7:02 PM EDT
This story has been updated with information about an incident involving a teacher being struck by a car while picketing.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.