Ohio superintendents: Yearning to break free-but after you go first

Last week we released Yearning to Break Free: Ohio Superintendents Speak Out ??? a statewide survey of Ohio superintendents and other education leaders.?? Among the key findings, superintendents told us they want state leaders to:

  • Get rid of the provision in state statute that mandates automatic step increases in teacher salaries ??? about seven in ten said this would be important.
  • Repeal the provision in state law that ???requires a last-in, first-out approach to layoffs??? ??? this is very important to two-thirds of Ohio's superintendents.
  • Change state law to make it ???easier to terminate unmotivated or incompetent teachers ??? even if they are tenured??? ??? eight in ten say this is very important.

On Friday, the report's co-author and I met with about 60 superintendents around the state and shared with them our survey results. Those conversations were especially intense because the Ohio Senate on Wednesday passed the highly controversial Senate Bill (SB) 5, which as reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer seeks the following changes for teachers:

  • Wages still will be negotiated through collective bargaining. But management gets to decide much more than it does now, including leave policies, class sizes and where employees are assigned.
  • Employees can't strike. If agreement can't be reached on bargaining issues, a fact-finder's report and the last offers from both sides will be made public. The school board then chooses one of the offers.
  • Salaries must be based on merit. Automatic raises now pegged to years of service and education credentials - known as step increases -- will be abolished.
  • Seniority no longer determines who gets laid off. Performance will be the primary factor, though seniority still will have a role.
  • Continuing contracts for experienced teachers - more commonly known as tenure - will no longer be granted.
  • Districts will pay for no more than 85 percent of employees' health care premiums. Currently, at least 335 districts pay a higher percentage.
  • Districts won't pay for any of the employees' required contribution to their pension plans, which is 10 percent of their salaries. Some districts pick up part of that now, but it's unclear how many.

Since the Senate's passage of SB 5, superintendents have been inundated with phone calls and emails from local union representatives and teachers expressing their dismay and anger with the bill. Superintendents expressed serious concerns that the heat that came down on lawmakers ??? (e.g. thousand protesting at the statehouse and a group of union activists confronting lawmakers in a restaurant) ??? will pale in comparison to what they will face in their local communities as they work to implement the reforms in SB5.

Some made clear to us that they have spent years working to cultivate good management/labor relations in their school districts, and that SB5 and our survey will only make their jobs harder. They said there is a serious risk of exaggerating animosities between management and labor that would bury everything else they want to do in their districts.

Others, however, argued that now is the time for superintendents to step-up and tackle the tough issues. This was summed up in a note sent to me by a superintendents after the meetings, ???We are in unprecedented times which require unprecedented measures???It's the economy. The sooner we learn we have to do business differently the sooner we can make progress.???

All the superintendents we spoke with raised concerns about the implementation challenges that are sure to arise when SB5 becomes law. Most believe the law's provisions will end up in court. Some made clear that though they agree with the reforms they would not want to lead the way in terms of implementation. They would prefer to wait for the courts to ultimately decide the legalities of these changes before implementing them in their schools. In short, none want the headaches or legal costs of fighting for these changes and prefer to follow others after precedents are set.

In short, the mood among the Ohio supes I met with is, ???Be careful what you wish for.????? Clearly in January ??? anonymously ??? via our survey they voiced the desire for more authority and flexibility in their jobs.?? But now that that power might be just around the corner, they aren't quite so eager to hold it. Ohio's superintendents, as a group, are a reform-minded bunch.?? But they are skeptical and nervous about the implementation challenges associated with the substantial reforms in SB5. They want change, but prefer to follow others in leading it.

??- Terry Ryan

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