Teachers are conspicuously missing from Norwalk's school orientations and open houses this fall. Norwalk Teachers Association members are boycotting the events -- proclaiming they will not commit to attend programs outside normal working hours until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. The teachers' contract expired in June.
"That has always been volunteer time, and since they've not been able to reach a deal on a new contract, they don't feel it's appropriate to continue to volunteer their time. They're still continuing to work outside the work day, grading papers and preparing lesson plans and those kinds of things," said Jeff Kestner, labor relations consultant with the Ohio Education Association.
NTA, a branch of OEA, is criticizing the district for spending so much money on legal counsel to fight its members' contract demands but refusing to budge when it comes to pay and benefits.
Norwalk City Schools treasurer Kenneth France said the district has paid attorney William Pepple $26,864 for 115.5 hours of work on contract discussions. NTA and OEA members claim this amount of legal counsel is borderline excessive. "One-hundred-and-fifteen hours worth of work to bargain two contracts seems, from my experience, a bit high," Kestner said. "(The amount paid is) only $3,000 less than a first-year teacher makes for working a full year, whereas this the equivalent of three regular work weeks for (Mr. Pepple)."
NTA crisis committee chairwoman Mary Kay Cillo said the district did not have invoices available for several of the more recent bargaining months, and still the lawyer bills were tremendous.
It "was a shocking amount of money involved," she said.
The district has a surplus about $12.65 million, France confirmed. Using that figure, NTA members claim the district has plenty of money to meet its bargaining demands. In response to criticism over its lawyer fees, superintendent Wayne Babcanec said lots of taxpayer money is at the center of negotiations, and making the best use of it is crucial.
"We're in the process of negotiating a contract that's going to be worth millions of public dollars, and the board needs to be good stewards of public money. Professional representation, when you are dealing with a contract of this magnitude, is part of the price of doing business," Babcanec said.
A federal mediator is being called in to facilitate negotiations. A meeting between the two sides is planned for Sept. 16.