A community divided turned out Tuesday night, on the eve of third week of Ottawa Township High School's teacher strike, to question representatives of the teacher's union about the ongoing strike. Strong opinions on both sides drew applause from the crowd that overflowed the chairs and standing room, filling the doorway of the meeting room at the annex of the First Baptist church.

Rene'e Hermann has three daughters enrolled at OTHS. Two of them attended the meeting with her. At the start of the meeting, she challenged the teachers' reason for striking, saying the difference between the union's and board's offers amounted to $18 per month.

"Are the numbers in today's paper right, on where you guys are in your contract?" Hermann asked, referring to a chart printed in the Times. "Please do not tell me you do not know," she added. Teachers had previously told the crowd they did not know about the district's financial health.

Hermann asked why the teachers would fight so hard for such a small difference, interfering with her children's education. But the teachers moderating the event said the figures she was using were inaccurate.

Trent Swords, a math teacher who is the chief negotiator, said discussions have moved on to whether the district will add $450 to teachers' base salary.

"That has to get run through an entire salary schedule, multiplied out, multiplied by all the people in there monthly, so it is not $18 a month that we're fighting over," Swords said.

By the end of the meeting, Hermann was collecting questions to ask the board or administrators while others in attendance made suggestions for her.

While Hermann's opinion may have changed, many in attendance seemed entrenched in their positions on either side of the issue. Four union members moderated the forum, but several more teachers scattered throughout the room also addressed the community's questions.

Several parents asked for a new vote by the teachers to test whether the union still should be on strike. One compared teachers to a "hijacker taking a plane for hostage." There were several references to personality conflicts between union members and board members, as a cause for stalled negotiation.

Many in attendance applauded statements supporting the teachers; others questioned how the teachers could ask for a raise and expect to continue to receive free health care in this economic climate.

In fact, health care was one of the issues most frequently raised by both sides.

Arbitration also was a hot topic. Anticipating a cost of $1,200 per day, many in attendance questioned the merit of having an outside arbitrator resolve the situation.

In arbitration, both sides agree to have a third party choose between the "last and best" offers of each side. School board president "Skip" Hupp has said opting for arbitration would remove local control over the district; critics at Tuesday's meeting said refusal to call in an arbitrator shows the board doesn't have faith in its plan.

Toward the end of the meeting, one woman asked for a vote from those in attendance to support the board and union going to arbitration. Many but not all in attendance stood to show their support for arbitration.

In their own words

- Mike Simundza, father of an OTHS senior: "There aren't very many people who don't pay for health insurance, out there in the workforce ... I don't think it's all that bad because everybody has to do it ... That's just the way it is nowadays."

"It seems like the only way out of this mess is through arbitration," he said, near the meeting's conclusion.

- Danette Haywood identified herself as a member of the elementary school board insurance committee who helped that district abandon its self-insurance plan. She said the same person who helped the elementary school transition to a better insurance plan met with a high school board member last week.

"The high school is paying twice the national average industry level for insurance and they have the worst insurance he has ever seen," Haywood said. Applause followed. "He informed them that he could save them $2 million. He has saved us $2 million. And the board's reply was, ‘We're not interested.'"

- Tim Burgess, a teacher: "A small group of 200 should not be self-insured."

"The average (cost for insurance) is between $12- to $13,000 for family insurance, and we're paying $19,000 … I don't think anyone would want to overpay and charged the board and taxpayers for that crazy amount."

A woman asked whether the board is "getting a kickback" from the self-insurance plan, which met with applause and hoots from the audience.

- Teacher Beth Gealow: "When I read in the paper it was a 5.9-percent increase, I thought, well we would be nuts to not accept a 5.9-percent increase. And I am also a math teacher, so I sat down and went through just my own, what I got paid last year according to their pay increase and what I would pay in insurance and what I would get."

"Year one, I would lose $830. If I add the wellness in there, that goes down to $480. In year two, there is an additional decrease of $1,150, so if you add year one plus year two… I'm now down $1,150 from what I got paid last year, and in year three, I would be down an additional $1,600, which would be $3,580 off of just mine," Gealow said.

"I would be happy to contribute to my health insurance if it covered the things that it should cover," Gealow said. She compared the school plan to her husband's, which covers more situations.

- One of the moderators, Sue Williamson, said the board's current proposal would leave 35 percent of teachers with a pay cut, on top of the insurance contribution.

"The proposal that is on the table, to me, is an interrupted conversation… and it is not only improper, but very, very foolish for everyone to vote on an interrupted conversation," Williamson said.

Williamson also responded to suggestions that the district cannot afford to give the teachers raises.

"The district has, in the last year, hired seven new teachers, a new administrator and created the freshman academy. I would question whether or not a school district that is capable of doing that would be in dire economic straits," Williamson said.

- Alex Poffenbarger, a senior, was sympathetic to the teachers.

"I honestly think that the teachers are for the kids… because a lot of the teachers have kids in high school," Poffenbarger said. "I don't feel like the board cares at all. It's just really frustrating."

Poffenbarger said since the strike, she and her friends have been working or hanging out at one another's homes.

- Sammie Morris, a senior at OTHS: "After hearing all this, I can see the teacher's side."

- Blair Hermann, another OTHS student: "It could change, but we haven't had a chance to do this with the board."

- Also moderating was Brian Gunther, a teacher and parent of three OTHS students:

"My son, Aaron, is a senior. He lost out on IMEA, like many of your children did. I have a sophomore, Matthew - he lost his football season. My daughter, Kayla, is a freshman. By rights, she should have won conference for tennis…I hear people say, ‘You teachers, you weren't thinking of the kids. You're greedy, you're thinking of yourselves.' Wrong answer. I thought long and hard before I voted (for the strike). I would vote yes again, if I were in the same situation"

Gunther said "in the upper 90 percentile" supported the motion to strike.

- Betty Moore, mother of two OTHS students:

"I want to know what each board member feels about this. We're going nowhere – we're going nowhere faster than fast."

"I have to high school kids that are totally out of school, obviously, and I want to know what happens now

"Somebody said that you guys were holding our kids hostage and I can understand how they feel about that, to an extent. But I feel like the board is holding us hostage as parents."

- Gene Duffy, father of an OTHS senior and former board member at Wallace elementary school district: "The next time you go to the voting booth, you might understand that the school board election might be the most important vote."

"It's not the school board's money. It's not the teachers' money. It's your money," he added.

The board weighs in

As of Tuesday night, Ottawa Township High School board remained opposed to arbitration. No board members spoke at the OTHSEA meeting, though the following press release appeared on the school's Web site:

"No responsible Board of Education could agree to the teachers' salary demands in light of the economy and the District's financial deficit. In recognition of this fact, the teachers have sought to force the Board's agreement by taking the students out of school. Now, after several days without school, the teachers demand that the Board relinquish control of, and responsibility for, the finances of the District to an arbitrator in order to return the students to school. This may sound like an acceptable quick fix to a difficult situation, but the potential long-term implications to the taxpayers and to the students, if programs or teachers must be cut to afford an arbitrator's award, are a risk this Board will not take. Again, we urge the teachers' negotiating team to permit the teachers to vote on this Board's last offer or to make a reasonable salary proposal while returning the students to school."

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