Pay freezes, the exodus of experienced teachers, and increased class sizes are exactly what Reynoldsburg School Board Vice-President Elaine Tornero has wanted since she her term began in 2010. Tornero was one of the two school board members to draft the board’s initial contract offer to teachers that ultimately led to contentious negotiations and a work stoppage by the teachers. But the conditions that prompted the impasse, most noticeably increased class sizes and experienced teachers leaving the district in unprecedented numbers, were no accident, and had been brewing for years under Tornero’s leadership.
In October 2009, the district was struggling to fund programs and had been requesting that residents pass a school levy. Then-candidate Tornero was interviewed at a candidate forum and her responses were captured by ThisWeek News:
In response to a question about what should be done if the district’s 9.9-mill levy fails in November, candidate Elaine M. Tornero made it clear that she has no intention of voting for the levy herself.
If it is rejected, she said, the district will have to look at cuts. She said she would like to see the schools get back to basics.
“I noticed on the pamphlet that went out (during the district’s May operating levy campaign) nothing really talked about the operations of the schools,” she said. “Most of the things included the sports and the music and so forth. I do realize the importance of that, but at the same time, if you get out there and you talk to the people on the fixed incomes, that just can’t be an issue for them,” she said. “It will ruin our community when those folks can’t pay for their homes and then we have empty homes, so I do know there are more cuts that can be made.”
[School board incumbent and present-day president Andrew] Swope pointed out that the district has already made “substantial cuts” to its budget.
“We’ve cut programs, busing — and if we don’t pass the levy, we’re going to have to look at cutting additional staff, as 85 percent of our budget lies within our personnel costs and their benefits,” he said. “Unfortunately, people who are going to pay for this will be the students, because they’ll have bigger class size, less programs and less opportunities for them, so I think it’s imperative we get the levy passed.”
Tornero, who had no experience on the board at that point, claimed to “know” that more cuts could be made, while the existing members pressed the point that the cuts had already dug deep and were eliminating vital programs, resulting in “bigger class size, less programs and less opportunities for [the students]”. This information was put out there and yet Tornero was still staunchly opposed to the levy (you’ll see more about this later).
On November 3, 2009, Reynoldsburg residents elected Tornero with the highest percentage of votes for any of the school board candidates. Swope finished second.
Three weeks later, on November 24, ThisWeek News again reported about the school system, this time recapping a meeting of the district’s Finance and Accountability Committee, where “talks continued on ways the district can reduce expenditures after the community voted down an operating levy earlier this month.”
Resident [now board member-elect] Elaine Tornero said she did not believe salary reductions would equate to less-qualified teachers.
The district could lose a jaded, over-paid teacher for a young, perky newcomer, Tornero said. “There is a glut of teachers right now.”
With minimal job opportunities, teachers are not likely to leave the district, Tornero said.
Tornero said she advocates a rate freeze rather than pay cuts.
Before she even took her seat on the school board, Tornero was already gambling on the future of the district, explaining that pay freezes and/or pay cuts would neither “equate to less-qualified teachers” or drive teachers away. Yet, as we now know, teachers HAVE left the school district and now the district is trying to find ways to implement “merit pay” to “retain high-quality teachers”. Tornero’s biases were evident as she gambled with the future of Reynoldsburg’s children and lost big.
Two months later, in January 2010, the school board voted to once again place a levy on the ballot for voters to consider. More cuts had been made and the current superintendent, Steve Dackin explained at the school board meeting that more cuts were imminent. Tornero, now a sitting member of the school board, was the lone vote against the additional funding. As reported by the Columbus Messenger on January 27, 2010:
The Reynoldsburg School Board has announced it will place an operating levy on the May ballot. Voters rejected a 15.6-mil levy attempt in May 2009 and a 9.9-mil attempt last November. The district already cut $17 million from its budget with another $3 million to be cut within the next fiscal year, Dackin said. With an original budget of $54 million, more than 40 percent of the funds will have been cut, Dackin said. Among the cuts already made were elementary art, music and gym, and most bus routes. In addition, athletes must pay $500 per sport to play.
“The bottom line is that significant funds are needed or (further) cuts will be detrimental to the educational core,” Dackin said. “The future of the schools and the community are at stake.”
Board member Elaine Tornero cast the lone vote opposed to the levy.
Tornero said the district should not ask taxpayers for more money during a poor economy that could grow worse. “Perhaps we haven’t seen it as bad as it can get,” Tornero said. “Voters are still in the same predicament they were six months ago, if not worse.” The district risks harming the city by increasing taxes and thus forcing residents to leave, Tornero said.
While Tornero said she recognizes the district needs money, she suggested administrators lower more expenses instead of raising taxes.
Tornero said the district should encourage experienced teachers to retire so they may be replaced with recent college graduates who would earn smaller salaries.
Tornero said children and education are important to the people in her camp as well. The problem is that Reynoldsburg already has taxes higher than the other suburbs because property owners must pay for the bond that funded the new high school, she said.
As a parent who homeschooled her children, Tornero said she understands the importance of learning from the prospective [sic] of a teacher.
“I am very interested in educating kids, and for the schools to think outside the box,” Tornero said.
So, in short, Tornero home-schooled her kids so she knows what it’s like to be a teacher, and she wants to get rid of older, experienced teachers in favor of younger, cheaper ones. (Making the case for union membership, thank you very much.) That’s twice in a four month span that Tornero has expressed opposition to increasing school funding to restore programs, and twice that she made openly-negative statements about experienced teachers — calling them jaded and unnecessarily costly. Thankfully, as she pointed out, her homeschooling experience allows her to relate to Reynoldsburg’s teachers…………
Then in April, one month before the levy was on the ballot, Tornero weighed in again:
Board Member Elaine Tornero disagreed with putting a levy on the ballot this May, stating that even though the community passed a bond issue in 2008 to build a second high school and seventh elementary school, residents may not realize a levy is needed to operate those schools, nor may be able to afford the added expenses.
“There is a distrust in the community about the schools now,” she said. “The community doesn’t differentiate a bond from a levy. When is enough enough? People say their wallets do not know the difference between a bond and a levy.”
After 15 years without an increase in local operating taxes, the district has made more than $20 million in cuts during the past five years and identified another $3 million for the next school year.
No matter the outcome in May, District Treasurer Tammy Miller said the board still plans to cut $3 million from the budget for next year.
Tornero, however, says it’s still too soon to go back to voters.
“We’ve made a lot of cuts,” she said. “Regardless, the community still feels as they do and the economy still is what it is. To throw it back on in May is just too soon.“
The majority of Reynoldsburg voters disagreed with Tornero as the levy was passed 55% – 45%, and Reynoldsburg began a rebuilding process, thanks to the additional funding and, in large part, to pay freezes agreed to by both of the district’s unions.
A 2013 article by the Fordham Institute that highlights the district’s recovery in a very favorable light exposes just how uninformed Tornero was about the district’s deep cuts and how much it ended up damaging the district:
First in November 2008 and two more times during the next year and a half, voters rejected levy requests, forcing once unthinkable cutbacks. Not counting administrators who left or lost their jobs, Reynoldsburg eliminated 148 positions – almost 20 percent of the staff – between October 2008 and October 2009.
In reaction to the cuts and financial chaos, enrollment fell by 10 percent from 2008 to 2012. Parents were unhappy about the massive layoffs, reduced busing for elementary students and a $500 pay-to-play fee. Families, thinking little good was happening in the district, left, said [Superintendent Steve] Dackin, 55.
And even the superintendent recognized the sacrifice on the part of the teachers.
“Our union was the first that I’m aware of,” Superintendent Dackin said, “that took a freeze in their steps without a make-up year. We’ve never had a make-up year.”
This school year, teachers got a 1-percent raise, with no step increase, and last year they received a 2-percent hike or a step increase. Next year there will be no raises except for teachers who have increased their education.
Teachers have agreed to the flexible contract provisions, Dackin said, because “I believe that we’ve never abused the language.” “You don’t have to take care of kids at the expense of teachers,” he said.
Take note of that key line by Dackin: “…we’ve never abused the [contract] language.” Dackin is gone. Tina Thomas-Manning is in.
And as for the oft-debated question of whether high school classes have high enrollment, the Fordham article provides irrefutable proof that it has been occurring and the administration is well aware of the figures:
Of the 496 students at eSTEM this year, 106 are taking calculus. [Principal Marcy] Raymond peered into one calc class where some of the 39 students were watching a teacher demonstrate problems on a whiteboard while others worked independently on their computers. “We’re a mastery school,” she said. “You have to perform at 70 percent effectiveness to receive credit.”
Finally, the Fordham article gives us a hint about where the school board may have gone wrong this past year after Dackin left:
Reynoldsburg School Board President Andy Swope has been there for the good and the difficult times in Reynoldsburg. A friend of Dackin’s, he was appointed to the board in 1999. The board, he said, has been “superintendent friendly” and lets Dackin lead. “If you have a board that stifles your superintendent,” Swope said, “you have the wrong superintendent – or the wrong board.”
“…the wrong superintendent – or the wrong board.” Or both.
It’s clear that Board Vice President Elaine Tornero’s opinions and decisions have been wrong for Reynoldsburg over the past four years. She clearly believed from the outset of her membership on the board that an exodus of experienced teachers would be good for the district and that more financial cuts were needed back in 2010, contrary to what the community chose. She also believed that compensation was not an issue for getting high-quality teachers in the district.
Now that teachers have left the district in droves, Tornero help to write a contract that was theoretically designed to throw more money at high-quality teachers in the form of “merit pay” in order to keep them from leaving, ignoring the poor working conditions and rising class sizes that her brand of leadership had created in the first place.
The Reynoldsburg community will have to decide who they trust and support in the years to come:
- Do they believe in and support the teachers to whom they entrust their children on a daily basis?
- Or does their faith lie with the part-time leaders on the school board that are making decisions (including the singular selection of superintendent Tina Thomas-Manning) that are pushing their favorite teachers to find greener pastures?