By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Twenty two area school districts are on Tuesday's ballot asking voters for money during one of the roughest economic times in decades.
Some area teachers' unions have agreed to wage freezes and other concessions to prevent layoffs and show voters that they understand that money is tight.
Orrville's teachers' union recently agreed to a deal that is the first of its kind in the state.
In addition to a two-year wage freeze, the union accepted a new wage structure that pays new teachers about 1 percent less than current teachers make when they take steps up the salary scale for years of service.
They'll start at the same base pay, but earn about $4,000 less than current teachers by the time they reach their 27th year.
New hires also will pay a higher premium for health insurance than current employees: 20 percent instead of 10 percent.
The union also negotiated some additional raises for current teachers, who
stay with the district between 30 and 35 years. New hires won't get those raises.
The step increases amount to a $7,000 salary boost in the 35th year of a teacher's service. However, in the 36th year, a teacher's pay would drop to what it was in the 27th year.
That's a powerful incentive for teachers to retire, which would allow the district to hire new teachers at a much lower cost.
''Our teachers realized that times were tough and that we're in unique economic circumstances,'' said Orrville and Rittman superintendent Jon Ritchie.
He estimated that the district would save more than $250,000 for each teacher hired under the new agreement over the life of that teacher's career.
Union president Phil Young, a math teacher at the high school for 24 years, said the Orrville community has been generous to the schools with only one or two levy defeats he can remember.
He hopes voters next week will approve the 5.4-mill levy, which will cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $165 more a year. But he said the big question mark is state funding, and the future doesn't look promising.
''You're hoping like crazy that it passes, but you're scared to death,'' he said.
If it doesn't pass Tuesday or in November, the district might have to lay off 20 to 25 teachers. If the levy does pass, they still might face some layoffs if the state cuts back.
The contract would have expired next year.
''Why wait for another year? We don't see it getting that much better,'' Young said.
The new deal doesn't change salaries in the next school year, but teachers' base pay will be frozen in the 2011-2012 school year and the next one.
The freeze doesn't affect the step increases mandated by state law that teachers receive for years of service and for earning more advanced college degrees.
Last year, Akron's unions all agreed to a one-year freeze on base pay.
Northwest, which is trying to pass a 1 percent earned income tax after several failures at the ballot, hasn't given its teachers a raise in three years, and they'll go into a fourth year without an increase in base pay.
Some districts have also frozen the step increases, which is what Manchester did in 2005 and again in 2009 with its teachers union and the union representing bus drivers, custodians and other non-teaching employees.
Both freezes, which applied to all employees, not just union members, resulted in a permanent $500,000 savings, because even when raises resumed, they were based on the year before the freeze.
''Most of the time, honestly, the step is worth more than the base raise,'' treasurer Dave Osborne said. ''If you look at most negotiated agreements, those steps are, I don't know, 3 or 4 percent. You can take a 1 percent raise on the base or zero, but if you step, you're still going to get a raise.''
Manchester also implemented a two-tier system for bus drivers in 2006. Drivers hired after 2006 will make less per hour than current drivers.
The administration has high praise for the cooperation between the district and its unions, but whether those concessions impress voters is a mixed story.
Manchester passed an 8.5-mill levy in 2005, which it is trying to renew Tuesday along with another renewal of a smaller levy that pays for utilities. But the pay freeze didn't help Manchester pass a bond issue last year to build new buildings.
Now the district is focused on maintaining daily operations, said superintendent Sam Reynolds.
Osborne has no doubt that the concessions saved teachers from getting laid off.
''There's just no way that we could have maintained the level of employment and still remained in the black,'' Osborne said. ''It would have been fiscally impossible.''
That's why the Ohio Education Association, which represents 713 locals throughout Ohio, understands why Orrville, a member union, agreed to its deal.
''That's what the local association felt they needed to do to make those changes to protect their jobs by avoiding layoffs and also to pass the upcoming levy,'' said OEA spokeswoman Michele Prater. She said it's the first of its kind in the state that OEA can recall.
The president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, Sue Taylor, also said the sacrifices that Orrville teachers made, especially on the two-tier wages, are highly unusual.
The OFT represents about 55 locals, including several of Ohio's big urban districts. Although many have had to agree to wage freezes or even cuts, none of them have done anything like what Orrville did.
''I just find it a little stunning,'' Taylor said. ''I'm not aware of any of our locals being pressured to do those kind of two-tiered systems or disincentives to stay employed.''
Orrville already broke new ground in 2008 with its innovative compact with the Rittman district to share a treasurer, assistant superintendent, student data coordinator and a special education director.
The compact saves Orrville about $170,000 a year and Rittman about $100,000 a year, said superintendent Jon Ritchie.
Doing it right
Orrville by itself enrolls about 1,645 students. Rittman is even smaller.
''Orrville does things right,'' Jim Duxbury, who has taught earth science and environmental science at Orrville High School for 15 years and is secretary of the teachers' union. ''We do things honestly and we try to make sure that everyone is taken care of.''
He said that kind of trailblazing makes a difference with the community when it's time to ask for money.
''The town has had multiple layoffs. We have had companies close down,'' Duxbury said. ''Orrville is a very close-knit community that if you justify your actions or positions or needs, they're behind you 110 percent.''