By KAREN KANTNER
Assistant Managing Editor
Anticipating the possibility that teachers with Wapakoneta City Schools may strike, school administrators are making plans to keep schools open and continue to educate students.
Wapakoneta City Schools Superintendent Keith Horner told the Wapakoneta Daily News on Friday administrators have been spending a great deal of time preparing for a possible strike.
“We are getting lesson plans in place,” said Horner, who said the district has been advertising for substitutes to cover for the 155 certified teachers who belong to the Wapakoneta Education Association (WEA). “We hired these teachers believing they are good teachers.”
Horner said plans continue to take shape to ensure classes continue without the teachers should the union decide to strike, but he admitted that even with the best made plans, school days without the regular teachers at the helm will not look the same.
“Safe, positive and productive is our goal,” said Horner. “We are planning for the worst and hoping for the best and will continue to do so until the matter is resolved.”
School administrators would communicate with parents about the situation when it is appropriate.
In December, members of the WEA voted to give their negotiating team the authority to issue a 10-day strike notice if they saw fit. To date, no such notice has been given, still both sides prepare for the possibility.
Serving as spokesman for the teachers union, Wapakoneta Middle School teacher Todd Crow released a statement late Thursday addressing the standstill between the WEA and the Wapakoneta City Schools Board of Education, which implemented its “last, best and final” offer to teachers on Dec. 31.
Previously, Horner said the board’s position is they are done talking because they already negotiated for eight months and given their “last, best and final” offer. A federal mediator, with which the two sides have been working, still has the ability to bring the two groups together, but all discussions must be with the mediator present.
Crow confirmed Friday a non-binding meeting between the two sides and a mediator is in the process of being scheduled.
“The support of the community, parents and teachers from surrounding school districts has been overwhelming,” Crow said. “They understand that our focus needs to be on what matters most, our students, and what they need to compete in a global society.
“It’s a shame that the Board of Education would rather waste precious tax dollars to fight against us rather than do what’s best for our students,” he said.
Crow said hiring the outside legal firm, Pepple and Waggoner, of Cleveland, to negotiate on behalf of the board, is unconscionable when the board has declared over and over that the district is in deficit spending.
Citing public records, Crow said the board already has spent approximately $176,878 in contract negotiations with school employees, and Crow said the WEA fears that taxpayers will find themselves in a similar situation as those in Strongsville, who were billed more than $511,610 by Pepple and Waggoner during contract negotiations there.
“We have never complained about outside legal firms in the past, but in this tough economy, we must focus on classroom essentials,” Crow said. “Teachers are the strongest advocates for our students and care about how the ability to teach can be compromised when the board of education is determined to silence the voice of the teachers.”
The WEA represents 165 teachers and education professionals working in the Wapakoneta City Schools, Crow noted.
Teachers plan to meet this weekend at the WEA’s headquarters in Wapakoneta to paint signs to drum up community support.
If a strike occurs, school administrators have advertised for substitute teachers to fill in for its regular teaching staff in six surrounding area newspapers. Horner said they’ve received response from licensed teachers looking to substitute and those with bachelor’s degrees in a variety of fields interested in the criteria to become substitute teachers.
As of Friday, more than 100 people had contacted the district about serving as substitutes in the event of a strike and Horner said calls continue to come in to the board office. Paraeducators currently serving in the district who meet substitute requirements also could be used to fill in for the teachers.
“We’ve focused our search on the surrounding area first but as we need to expand we will,” Horner said. “If they are willing to work, we have a school to operate.”
Horner said they continue to follow the law and are not hiring substitutes who do not have clean background checks, which is a requirement in the state of Ohio, as is a bachelor’s degree and a substitute teaching license. Substitutes are not required to having teaching degrees.
“The background check is the most important thing,” Horner said of candidates seeking a license to substitute. “We do, as we always do, have the ability to allow people to work prior to the issuance of a license as long as they have a background check.”
The superintendent explained the ability extends throughout the time it would take to obtain the license, which can take several weeks, but the Ohio Department of Education has also agreed to expedite the applications process as well.
Horner said he intends to begin interviewing potential candidates soon, as if a strike is announced,
Horner does not intend or anticipate any sort of break in classes to give administrators time to organize plans.
“If we filled every spot we would need 155 teachers,” Horner said. “The goal is to keep the same teacher to student ratio.
“The response has been great,” he said. “We are hoping to screen these candidates and keep moving forward.”
At this time, he said specific plans cannot be addressed as they will depend on the situation as it presents itself at the time. He also did not know if any teachers may cross over picket lines to continue to teach in their classrooms.
Horner said the district is contracted with a security company to provide additional protection in the event of a strike, but the details of where and how that be security would be provided also have not yet been determined.
“We will make sure parents are comfortable with what is going on,” Horner said Friday as he answered questions posed by concerned parents and members of the community. “If that requires some parent visitation, we’re OK with that, but at some point, once we get legs under us we would ask that we get back to a normal situation.”
To help maintain a sense of normalcy throughout the district, Horner said they are making plans to continue extracurricular activities and sports as much as possible.
“We will work from varsity sports down and fill in spots with whoever and however we can,” Horner said. “We want to continue with kids having a good experience.
“How that will look, we have not totally determined yet,” he said. “We’re doing as much administratively as possible. We do have some people who’ve approached us as well.”
If a strike were to occur, Horner said like at other times of the year, parents may elect to transfer their children to another district.
“They can leave and come back but if another kid moves into a class it could fill up the spot,” Horner said. “We’d certainly try to make every effort for that not to happen, we are not going to hurt the children, but we couldn’t 100 percent guarantee they would come back and be in the same class.”
Home schooling requires an application and Horner said he was unsure what kind of time line may be involved.
The Wapakoneta City Schools plans to meet for its annual organizational meeting at 8:15 a.m. today in the Wapakoneta High School Large Group Room.
A special meeting also was scheduled with board members to meet in executive session for the appointment or employment of public employees or officials and to prepare for, conduct or review negotiations with public employees.