Where can you find a place in Columbus to host a couple thousand people this weekend on short notice?
That's the predicament the Columbus Education Association found itself in Thursday as they looked for a place to host a meeting for a couple hours one day this weekend so they can vote on whether to ratify their tentative contract agreement with Columbus City Schools.
The two sides reached a "conceptual agreement" early Thursday morning after more than 12 hours of negotiations with a federal mediator.
“We are trying desperately to get a place that can hold 4,500 teachers as quickly as possible, so if you have any suggestions, let me know,” CEA Spokesperson Regina Fuentes said during a Thursday afternoon press conference.
“We are working vigorously to get this scheduled up," she said. "It has to be done by the end of the night Sunday because we want to be back in the classroom on Monday."
Fuentes confirmed to The Dispatch late Thursday afternoon that the CEA was are still looking for a place for their members to meet, hear the terms of the proposed contract from their bargaining team, ask questions and discuss the tentative deal, and vote.
Convention center, Schottenstein booked; Nationwide Arena under construction
The Greater Columbus Convention Center is already booked up for the weekend by the National Guard Association of the United States, which is holding their 144th general conference and exhibition. More than 2,000 Army and Air National Guard officers from all 50 states, three territories and the District of Columbia will gather to "connect, party and get down to business" setting the upcoming legislative agenda for the association, which lobbies Congress and the federal government on behalf of its approximately 45,000 officers .
The convention center is where CEA voted to go on strike Sunday night and where CEA's legislative assembly voted to issue a 10-day notice of the union's intent to strike on Aug. 4.
“I’m not sure where the CEA can meet and vote. They can’t meet at the convention center,” said Don Brown, executive director at the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority, which operates the convention center and Nationwide Arena.
Brown said CEA was "fortunate in getting in when space was available" in recent weeks for their previous two meetings.
The convention center’s short-term meeting availability is dependent on the schedules of the conferences and conventions that book two-to-three years in advance, Brown said. The CEA was able to use space there previously for a small rental charge, he said, though he said he could not immediately recall what it was.
Nationwide Arena is also tied up because the authority is making major improvements to the facility, including electronic upgrades, and the floor has lifts and other equipment in there, Brown said.
Brown said the manager of Nationwide Arena is also the manager at Schottenstein Center, he was told that facility is not available this weekend either.
"If they have nowhere else to go, we will stop work" at Nationwide Arena so they can hold the vote there" Brown said. "We will need a day or so to clear equipment off the floor. After all, we're a public facility and we're here to serve the community."
However, Brown said the CEA would need to notify the authority soon.
The Ohio Expo Center & State Fair can accommodate 6,000 people theater-style, said Leah Berger, spokesperson for Experience Columbus, the city's convention and visitors organization.
Brown said the facilities authority suggested the state's Expo Center and fairgrounds to the CEA, specifically the Rhodes and Celeste centers there.
"I'm sure they are exhausting all possibilities," CEA's Fuentes said of the union officials trying to find a meeting place.
Seats down front at Huntington Park with Clippers away?
One report The Dispatch has received is that the CEA might take its members out to the ballpark and hold the vote Sunday at Huntington Park. The field is not in use this weekend by the Columbus Clippers because they are in the middle of a four-game away series through Sunday against the Buffalo Bisons.
Huntington Park is owned by Franklin County, which could make it easier for the union to gain access to the facility, though it would not be enclosed and discussion of the union contract might be conducted somewhat in the open.
The Dispatch was attempting to confirm this possibility Thursday night, but CEA's Fuentes had not responded to an inquiry about possible locations and Franklin County officials could not immediately be reached Thursday night.
Columbus City school board plans Sunday press briefing, Monday classes
Although there is no official word that the CEA has found a place to meet and vote, the Columbus City Board of Education has announced plans that seem to suggest things are moving forward.
The school board announced late Thursday afternoon it will hold a special meeting Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Columbus Education Center, Downtown, where it will immediately recess into executive session to "review negotiations or bargaining sessions with public employees concerning their compensation or other terms and conditions of their employment."
The meeting appears to suggest that school board members not in the know already will be briefed on the terms of the tentative contract that district negotiators reached with the CEA and will have a chance to ask questions. It is unlikely that board members will discuss details of the contract afterwards as they are awaiting the CEA's approval of the agreement first.
The school board also announced it will be available for a press briefing Sunday after the CEA members vote on the new contract, though the CEA as of late Thursday afternoon maintained it still didn't know when or where members would meet.
If the CEA does not do so after its vote, the school board press briefing could be when Columbus City Schools releases to the public at least some details about the new contract prior. The school board announced Friday morning a special meeting Monday at 8 a.m. at Southland Center where they will likely ratify the agreement after the CEA approves it.
"CEA members have to review the current offer with their members and vote on the offer and accept it. It’s my understanding, that meeting will take place on Sunday," Columbus City Schools spokesperson Jacqueline Bryant said. "Once that’s been done, the Board will take action on the collective bargaining agreement during the Special Meeting scheduled Monday.
In-person classes planned Monday, athletic and band practices Aug. 26
The district seemed somewhat confident Thursday about this timetable and presumptive of union approval of the proposed contract. In a letter published on Facebook and other social media, Columbus City Schools Superintendent Talisa Dixon said she was "happy to share that our children will return to in-person instruction on Monday.
Columbus City Schools also will resume all athletic, band and drill team practices next Friday, Aug. 26, she said.
Dixon also announced that the “Virtual Family Engagement” session that was scheduled to be held tonight (Thursday, Aug. 25) was postponed to next Tuesday, Aug 30, so the district “can hear about the successful return to the classroom for our students and teachers.”
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus teachers union tried to find spot for vote on new contract