Teachers strike gets mixed opinions at local schools

September 17, 2004|TODD KLEFFMAN

When Kentucky Education Association board members meet later today to decide how to show their disapproval for Gov. Ernie Fletcher's new health insurance plan, they'll receive mixed signals from area school employees on whether to strike.

Polling conducted among all employees in the Danville and Boyle County systems indicates that a majority of school workers do not think a strike is appropriate. But in Casey and Lincoln counties, surveys show there is overwhelming support for walking off the job in protest of the rising costs of insurance coverage that are outpacing salary increases for state workers

"I've heard everything from do nothing to do something drastic," said Renee Yates, a teacher at Junction City Elementary and president of the Boyle County Education Association who was elected to the state KEA board in July. "We all want something done, but not everyone agrees on how we should go about it."

Yates' comments reflect the closeness of the polling she conducted among certified and classified Boyle school employees during the past week, after the Jefferson County Education Association called for a statewide strike. Of the employees who responded, 66 said they did not feel a strike was appropriate, while 63 said it was.


In Danville, those who responded to the same question voted 81 against a strike and 57 in favor, said Donda Duscherer, president of the Danville Education Association and librarian at Danville High School.

Sentiments in favor of a strike ran much higher in Lincoln County, where 147 said such action was appropriate compared to 77 who did not, and in Casey County, where 119 support a strike versus 22 who do not.

"I knew people were upset, but this clarified for me just how upset they really are," said Martha Thompson, a teacher at Liberty Elementary and a KEA liaison for Casey County. "We've tried everything politely so far and have not gotten any results. We don't know what else to do."

Results of polling in Mercer and Garrard counties, if any was conducted, were not available today.

Several scenarios under consideration

Several scenarios are under consideration, ranging from a one-day statewide strike to rotating strike days in regions around the state to an extended walk-off. Less drastic measures include face-to-face meetings between teachers and Fletcher, e-mail campaigns to legislators and public rallies.

The KEA's crisis committee is scheduled to meet at noon today in Frankfort to compile survey results from around the state and make a recommendation on what sort of protest action school employees should take. That recommendation would then go to the 32-member state KEA board, which meets at 8 p.m.

Charles Main, KEA's communications director, said this morning that statewide totals had not yet been compiled but that predictable patterns of support have emerged from Kentucky's various geographic regions.

For example, school employees in southeastern Kentucky and the Louisville area, where the labor movement has a strong foothold, are voting in favor of a strike by large margins, while support in central Kentucky, where labor unions are not as much a part of the culture, is much weaker, Main said.

"We know sentiment is very high in the southeast, where they have a history of unions in the coal mining areas," he said. "Down there, they're saying, 'A one-day action? What kind of sissy stuff is that? A strike is when you walk off the job and it isn't over until you die or you get what you want.'"

A "middle path" predicted

Main predicted that KEA will ultimately choose "a middle path" that recommends each school district pursue a course of action that its employees feel most comfortable with.

"I think a job action of some kind is unavoidable at this point," he said. "Some districts will walk off the job, but I think it will be left up to the locals to protest in a way they feel comfortable with."

Yates said that she personally feels that a "more professional approach" that involves further discussions with Fletcher and legislators and information campaigns geared toward gaining public support is the best way to go. "We're a little more cautious in central Kentucky, I think," she said. "I think we are having some successes (without having to resort to a strike)."

But for Amanda Gay, a teacher at Hustonville Elementary and president of the Lincoln County Education Association, the time for kinder, gentler tactics has passed. If school employees don't make a stand now, the best teachers, bus drivers and cooks will leave the schools for better opportunities.

"We've tried the friendlier avenues and it hasn't gotten us much so far. I think we're to the point now that if we don't do something, nothing is going to change," Gay said. "Ultimately, we're doing it for the students, because if we don't do something, we're going to lose quality teachers and classified personnel. Then who will be left at the schools?"

How they voted

KEA asked local school districts across the state to survey employees to gauge support of a statewide strike to protest Gov. Ernie Fletcher's new health insurance plan for state employees. The results of the unscientific polling for Danville, Boyle County, Casey County and Lincoln County are listed below. Results for school systems in Garrard and Mercer counties were not available.

1. Do you believe a statewide strike of school employees is the appropriate action to take on the issue of school employee health insurance?

DANVILLE: yes, 57; no, 81

BOYLE: yes, 63; no, 66

CASEY: yes, 119; no 22

LINCOLN: yes 147; no 77

2. If KEA calls for such action, will you be willing to strike for better health insurance benefits?

DANVILLE: yes 55; no 82

BOYLE: yes 60, no 78

CASEY: yes, 118, no 23

LINCOLN: yes, 177; no 47

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