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In Cleveland: Reading, Writing, And Replacement Workers

The Workplace: UNIONS


The city is taking desperate measures to keep schools open

A strike was possible, and all the preparations were under way. Officials placed advertisements in 15 newspapers in Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania, recruiting replacement workers at a rate of $175 a day. Would-be strikers were told their health insurance would be cut off if they walked. Management even hired a private security force at $65,000 a day to take pictures of strikers and document any violence or law-breaking.

Caterpillar girding for another go-around with the United Auto Workers? Hardly. That's how Cleveland kicked off the new school year. The city's public schools have recruited 1,500 replacement teachers to try and do the jobs of the 4,500 who could go on strike Sept. 16. Actually putting so many replacements to work in the classroom would represent a new experiment for a major urban school district.

DEEP DEBT. Cleveland's fight is over officials' contention that winning concessions from teachers is central to fixing the school system, which faces a $23 million operating deficit this year because of $20 million in spending for court-ordered desegregation. "This district is beyond broke," says Superintendent Richard A. Boyd. Adds district negotiator Martin T. Wymer: "We're well over $150 million in debt on an operating budget of $450 million. You couldn't run a business that way."

Teacher givebacks are only part of an overall plan to balance the system's budget, says Gilman R. King, a crisis manager hired by a group of Cleveland-area CEOs to help the district. King is asking district suppliers to cut prices by 7%, and officials also are hoping voters will pass a property-tax levy.

Everyone agrees the district's academic record is miserable as well. Just 7% of Cleveland students are likely to graduate with passing marks on 12th-grade proficiency tests. District officials blame the teachers' contract. In newspaper ads, they argue that teachers aren't in the classroom long enough each day, are too difficult to fire for underperformance, and should take more responsibility for student achievement. "This contract is killing our children," Mayor Michael R. White said in a recent TV interview.

Yet the contract is roughly comparable to those of other districts in the area and around the nation. "Everything they've pointed out is a standard item," says 27-year veteran science teacher John Hummer. For their part, teachers blame the budget mess on mismanagement, property-tax abatements which have cost the schools tens of millions in revenue, and misplaced priorities in state school-funding. The union has offered a one-year contract extension, with no wage increase, and $3.3 million in health-care and other savings.

LOST PAY. Officials are able to take a hard line in part because a federal judge placed the Cleveland district under state oversight in March, 1995. So state officials can override the local school board, some of whose members oppose replacements. If the state can keep school officially open, regular teachers won't ever make up pay lost in a strike, as they have in the past by working make-up school days.

The two sides avoided a walkout on Sept. 4 with an agreement to extend the contract for an additional 10 days. But since then, battle lines have hardened. At a Sept. 8 NAACP meeting during which members endorsed the teachers' cause, Democratic U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes and most of the city's black political leadership, with the notable exception of Mayor White, blasted state officials for taking a hard line in a district that is 70% black.

School officials are also taking heat over hiring Vance International Inc., the security company. Vance's Asset Protection Team is anathema to unionists, who recall its work at Caterpillar Inc., the Detroit newspapers, and other labor conflicts. Vance specializes in photographing picket lines--to intimidate and provoke strikers, say unionists; to document violence, says President Charles F. Vance.

Cleveland teachers say students will simply be warehoused if there's a strike. Boyd acknowledges that there will be few "embellishments" but vows that learning will go on. There's still time for a resolution. But Cleveland is looking more like Caterpillar's Peoria than anyone would ever have imagined.By Zachary Schiller in ClevelandReturn to top

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