Picture this—you’ve worked at a job for 20 years, and it’s time for you to sign your annual contract. However this year, unlike any year before, you have no guarantee as to what job you’ll be performing, how much you’ll earn per hour, or what your health coverage will be. If you don’t like what you get, you can’t strike. You can’t even quit.
Unfortunately for Ottumwa Community School District teachers, this is the exact situation they’re facing and why they’re asking for your help.
Back in the 1970s, Iowa’s public employees, like teachers, often took to the streets to protest working conditions. The Iowa Legislature, recognizing the need for schools and other public services to stay open, responded by enacting Chapter 20, which enabled public employees to bargain together and negotiate with their employers over hours, heath insurance, vacation time, sick time, seniority, safety, etc. In exchange, public employees gave up their right to strike.
When the Iowa Legislature recently amended Ch. 20, it cut away nearly all of the negotiating power for many public employees, without giving them back their right to strike. Under this changed law, the school district only needs to negotiate with teachers about wages. While some categories of benefits like insurance are now excluded from negotiations, the rest are totally optional.
Although it could negotiate over many benefits with teachers if they wanted to, the Ottumwa Community School District has instead chosen to put teachers’ benefits in an “employee handbook” the district can change at any time, for any reason. In years past, these benefits have always been in the teachers’ contract, which means they’ve been legally enforceable.
Currently, the teachers’ union, the Ottumwa Education Association, is negotiating with Superintendent Nicole Kooiker, and the final say rests with the school board. Among the benefits that the district has proposed be included only in a “handbook,” and not the legally binding contract, are teacher assignments, employee work year, employee hours, sick leave and leaves of absence, heath provisions, safety provisions, and the rights of teachers.
This means Kooiker and the school board are asking teachers to sign legally binding contracts with no promise of what school they’ll work at, what grades they’ll teach, what days of the year they’ll be asked to work, how many hours they’ll be asked to work, if they’ll receive sick leave, etc. While Kooiker has reportedly promised that wages will not change, without set working hours, teachers will have no guarantee of how much they’ll earn per hour.
If the school district proceeds with putting these benefits in a handbook instead of a contract, Ottumwa teachers are legally stuck with the changes. If teachers or their union choose to strike, they can be fined $500 per day per individual or $10,000 per day for the union. They can also be jailed for six months. If a teacher quits before their contract expires, they can be fined more than $1,000 and have their Iowa teaching license suspended for 1-2 years.
In no other professional environment would employees be asked to sign such restrictive contracts without any guarantee of basic benefits. Our teachers are highly educated professionals who care deeply about our students. They deserve better.
The good news is that these changes aren’t final, and your voice can help if you act now. Just last month, the Indianola Community School District underwent similar negotiations with teachers. The community pushed back, and as a result, many of the above benefits were ultimately included in the teachers’ contract.
Here’s how you can help:
The Ottumwa Education Association has requested that community members Wear Red for Ed and sign their petition to the School Board requesting that the board retain the benefit items described above in the teachers’ contract (available both in person and online at change.org). Additionally, the OEA asks that community members attend their final rally (5:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, at the corner of Jefferson and Main streets) and the upcoming school board meeting (6 p.m. Monday, April 22). For yard signs, contact Heather Swanstrom (firstname.lastname@example.org).
You should also feel free to contact their elected representatives and the Superintendent directly. The current School Board members are Leisa Walker (email@example.com), Mike Dalbey (firstname.lastname@example.org), Jeff Bittner (email@example.com), Gary Granneman (firstname.lastname@example.org), Michael Carpenter (email@example.com), Nancy Manson (firstname.lastname@example.org), and Bill Allen (email@example.com). Superintendent Nicole Kooiker can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone at 641-684-6597 x66510.
If you’d like to provide feedback on the changes to Ch. 20, contact your Iowa representatives. For Wapello County, Marinette Miller-Meeks (email@example.com) and Ken Rozenbloom (firstname.lastname@example.org) serve as senators, and Mary Gaskill (email@example.com) and Holly Brink (firstname.lastname@example.org) serve as representatives.