Columbus Teachers Make Their Case For A New Contract

Apr 25, 2019

Some held signs, most chanted, but Marisa Keith pushed a cart.

“This is my art cart,” she explains. “I wanted everybody to see that this is my classroom.”

Keith is an art teacher at North Linden and Maize Road elementary schools. Walking through downtown Columbus, Keith's cart is loaded down with markers and construction paper—she’s even got what appear to be potato mashers. All of the things she uses for a typical class, and all coming out of her own pocket.

“It does force me to be very creative,” she says, tongue-in-cheek. “But there are projects that I don’t think we can do as well because we don’t have anywhere for things to dry. So it’s frustrating for them, because I want to give them a better experience.”

Hundreds of teachers and their allies marched Wednesday, a mass of red shirts snaking through downtown. The teachers union, Columbus Education Association, is in the midst of contract negotiations with the district, with their current agreement expiring in August.

The union is asking for higher salaries, but they’re emphasizing classroom needs. “Art on a cart” is one of the areas where they want to see improvements, and they're calling for dedicated resources for music and physical education as well. The union also wants to see an alternative disciplinary program that avoids suspensions in middle and high schools.

“I like the focus, that we’re focusing on students," says Linda Duellman, who teaches science at Eastmoor Academy. “That we’re looking at, like, students deserve more than we’re giving them, and so the things that they deserve are more services and smaller classes, and I think that’s a good focus.”

Marisa Keith, an arts teacher at Columbus elementary schools, pushes an "art cart" during a march downtown.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

Right now, though, the union’s big ask has to do with tax abatements. The school district’s primary source of funding comes from property taxes, and organizers criticize the city's deals offering breaks in exchange for new development.

Wednesday’s march took demonstrators to the doorstep of CoverMyMeds. Speaking to the gathered crowds, union president John Coneglio took aim at a 15-year, 100 percent property tax abatement the corporation received last year.

“This single abatement—just this single abatement will drain Columbus City Schools of projected $55.6 million in property tax revenue,” Coneglio says.

He argues when developers or corporations demand incentives, local leaders find the money—but when teachers ask for higher salaries, more services or better programs, they’re told the coffers are empty.

“We cannot work together to build the schools Columbus students deserve if we offer handouts to wealthy corporations that don’t need them,” Coneglio says.

Columbus teachers are pushing for smaller class sizes, higher salaries and more lenient disciplinary policies.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU

Columbus Development Director Steve Schoeny defends the city’s tax incentives broadly, and the CoverMyMeds deal specifically. Before the deal, the parcels generated about $30,000 in property taxes annually. For the life of the abatement, the district will forgo tax dollars on the new building.

But the city is sharing income taxex generated by the company's new employees.

“The district is going to make, in one year, from revenue sharing with the city on that during the abatement period, about 19 times what they make annually today from those parcels—those are the facts,” Schoeny says.

That revenue sharing doesn’t come close to the amount of property tax being forgiven. But Schoeny insists without the deal, the building wouldn’t be built, and abatements do eventually expire.  When this one does, it will generate more than $3 million for the district annually.

“I mean, it’s, do you offer a discount up front to get the long term business?” Schoeny says.

For its part, the school district refused comment on specific contract issues while negotiations are ongoing. But they issued a statement saying they respect the union’s right to march and applauding its focus on what students deserve.

The union's contract ends August 18, on the first day of classes.