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Tough Lessons in Hard Times
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Tough Lessons in Hard Times: Mansfield, Ohio

Story By Mike Harden

When Tina Adams took a job as head cook in a Mansfield City Schools cafeteria in 1984, the job paid $7.60 per hour, only 35 cents more than the minimum wage today in Ohio. If she thought the pay unfair, correcting such matters came as second nature.

“My mother liked to say that she had cursed her children with an easily outraged sense of injustice,” Adams said recently. “She worked as a cook at the G.M. plant in Ontario. She was the union steward. My father had died when I was 14. I was the third of seven children.”

As a 6 th-grader, she had been a student helper in the cafeteria, a chore for which she was rewarded with a free lunch. When she suddenly found herself a single mother of four at 27, she returned to the cafeteria. The unwavering tenacity that saw her through a working-mom’s rearing of a quartet of offspring likely served her in good stead when she became the spear point in negotiating a new contract for certified and ESP employees of Mansfield City Schools last year, then ascended to the presidency of the Mansfield School Employees Association.

“I took office in July, 2007, as first vice president,” Adams recalled. “We were working without a contract, and there was no movement on the administration’s part to come to the table and bargain. We hadn’t had a pay raise in four years.”

The ESP contract had expired on Aug. 31, 2007, as did the teacher contract four months later.

Brad Strong, MSEA’s first vice president noted, as well, “At the end of the ’06-’07 school year, the district shut down four buildings and re-bid every teaching position.”

Adams added, “Over the course of the past three years, we lost about 75 ESPs and 125 teachers.”

Strong, an outdoor education teacher at the school system’s Rural Life Center, believes that Adams was the right person to step in after negotiations stalemated.

“Tina is persistent,” he explained. “She makes sure that the right questions are asked at the table and that they get answered. When management was dodging certain questions that needed to be answered, she’d just go back and ask the same question differently to get the answer she needed. She was always on point, always professional and always kept her cool at the table.

“When we declared an impasse, we knew we had the right person to speak to the media, and because she had all the credentials, she was active in forming the message. She had a good finger on the pulse of the organization.”

The bargaining had moved to crisis negotiations in late-August, 2008, after teachers and ESPs had labored an entire school year without a contract. When the MSEA established an informational picket outside an early home football game, school authorities used a bullhorn to threaten the arrest of members. The union rallied on several occasions over as many weeks.

Adams recalled, “We had orange T-shirts printed that said on the front, ‘I don’t want to,’ and on the back, ‘But I will.’” The MSEA went into a work-to-rule mode. Of course, work to rule, did not apply to all that was being asked of Adams when it came to negotiating, organizing rallies and maintaining solidarity.

“I’d start at 6:30 some days,” she said, “would get home at midnight, go to bed and do it all over again the next morning. It’s a huge strain. It was a whirlwind of drama and chaos. I’m here and on the clock, but the phone is ringing constantly with calls from throughout the district.”

It is not as though she came as a stranger to hectic days and long hours. During most of the years she labored as a single mom, she supplemented her cafeteria salary by pulling two shifts a week as grill cook at the local Cracker Barrel and four or five shifts during school vacation. Still, after becoming chief negotiator for her contemporaries at school, she fretted over unmet needs on the home front.

She remembered of her 17-year-old son, Leslie, “He was always the first to ask, when there was a rally or a picnic, ‘Mom, what can I do?’”

“I deejayed the MSEA picnic and their rallies,” said Leslie, now in his final year at Mansfield Senior High School.

The toll of the drastically protracted talks was exacted in many ways, though Adams was deeply troubled about its apparent impact on enrollment.

“We’ve lost a lot of students,” she said. “In the ’07-’08 school year, we lost 700 students. And we have lots of good things going on for our students. We have good teachers, a good curriculum. It is just that, at the time, a lot parents were saying, ‘We have enough drama in our lives already. It’s just easier to take our kids to the charter schools.’”

Finally, in Oct., 2008, after hours of midnight oil burnt over months of negotiations, MSEA secured three-year contracts for ESP and certified members. Tina Adams was finally able to exhale.

In early summer, she was named OEA’s education support professional of the year.

“She’s very deserving of that award,” Strong said of the honor. “She is the first ESP employee elected president of MSEA. I know there were times when it had to seem like it was thankless. There were days when I talked to her more often than I talked to my wife. But, we were able to play off one another’s strengths.”

The irrepressible Tina Adams returned to the school kitchen this year resembling one of the three walking-wounded patriots from artist Archibald Willard’s famous “Spirit of ’76.” While painting the outside of her home, located across the street from the Prospect Elementary School cafeteria where she works, she took a tumble from the roof and had to be rushed into surgery to repair the injuries to her arm and elbow.

One of her first acts after leaving the hospital was to assure the other members of her MSEA team that there would be no break in the continuity of leadership.

She likes to say, “I believe that if I have the means and ability to improve someone’s life, particularly children, then that is what I am supposed to do. It’s what I thrive on.”

As for her philosophy in single-parenting her own children, she said, “My kids don’t need self-esteem to make them feel more special or more important. They need self-respect to make them understand that everyone is important. I’ve always wanted them to understand that everyone has a place to hold and a contribution to make to society.”

And, of course, to never forget that the family legacy is an easily outraged sense regarding injustice.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Ohio Schools magazine

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