Wednesday, May 19, 2010

TOP STORY > >Board drops union after long hearing

Leader staff writer

Five hours of impassioned pleadings from teachers at a hearing Monday night did not change the minds of four members of the Pulaski County Special School District School Board, who again voted to do away with the teachers’ union-negotiated contract and replace it with one based on personnel policies yet to be adopted.

Votes cast by Tim Clark, Charlie Wood, Mildred Tatum and Dan Gililland underscored earlier decisions this majority has made to end recognition of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers as the collective bargaining agent for PCSSD teachers.

Voting against the motion were Bill Vasquez, Gwen Williams and Sandra Sawyer.

Before an audience of about 400 of their colleagues at Mills University Studies in Little Rock, 35 teachers told the board why the professional- negotiations agreement, which has been in place for more than 20 years, is good not only for teachers but the district’s 17,000-plus students.

Teachers contended that many of the protections for teachers and students that were built into the existing agreement over the years have been eliminated in the set of new policies the board wants. Those include provisions for site-based decision making involving teachers, administrators and parents; compensation for non-instructional duties such as special events and hall monitoring; prep time; student-discipline protocols; teacher assignments and transfers; posting of job vacancies; classroom supplies; allowances for teachers to choose substitutes to ensure quality instruction in their absence, and the process principals must follow for teacher annual reviews. The new policies do not include the May 1 deadline that was mandated in the professional negotiations agreement.

The May 1 deadline was negotiated because some principals were not giving teachers performance reviews before the school year ended.

“Everything is in here for a reason; either the administration brought it or the teachers brought it,” said Robbie Keopple of the current contract. Keopple is a Scott Elementary School teacher who has been with PCSSD for 38 years.


The policies “are woefully inadequate and lack substance,” said Cheryl Carpenter, a North Pulaski High School English teacher and coach.

Carpenter told the board that she did not agree with everything done by the union or in the PNA, yet the PNA is worth saving because it has “detailed procedures and criteria” on a host of important issues unaddressed by the new policies, which were crafted by district administrators without teacher input. She urged the board to resume contract negotiations to work out whatever differences exist.

“There are problems – no question – on both sides,” Carpenter said of the relationship between the district and PACT. “Let’s find common ground, which is the kids.”

More than 600 teachers had requested a grievance hearing as permitted by state law because all district teachers had received notification from acting Superintendent Rob McGill that their contracts would not be renewed at the end of the fiscal year, June 30.


District officials insist that no teacher’s job is in jeopardy, but that the non-renewal action was necessary in order to implement the new contracts. The board intends to have a personne-policies committee, comprised of teachers and administrators, in place by the June 30 deadline. That will require an election of teacher representatives for the committee by the end of the school year, only a few weeks away.


Several teachers spoke out about a lack of basic supplies in their classrooms and out-of-date instructional materials.

Holding up a tattered book, Judy Lambertus told the board that her English textbooks are 20 years old.

“We have teachers who don’t have any books,” Lambertus said. “We have no paper, and our funds are frozen. We want to take care of kids, but we can’t with the stuff we have.”

Verla Edwards, a math teacher at Jacksonville High School, said that she spent $600 out of her own pocket this school year because of a dearth of funds for supplies.

“Pencils, markers, poster board, ink cartridges, computer paper – the list is much longer, but this should give you a clue about the types of things we are working without,” Edwards said. “We are fighting for an educated nation. We are in the trenches.

This is why I became a union member.”


Board members listened solemn-faced to the teachers.

Board member Danny Gililland said he “had the highest respect for teachers” and felt no “anger or vindictiveness” toward them.

Board member Charlie Wood said he thought “many of the teachers’ comments were very appropriate and intelligent,” a comment which elicited groans from the audience. Wood went on to say he thought teachers “should be treated like other professionals, such as lawyers, engineers and accountants” who don’t need union “protections” like those teachers expect, such as compensation for non-instructional duties.

Carpenter explained she appreciates those contract provisions after working at a local parochial school where “last-minute encroachments on teacher time became untenable.”


Several teachers challenged a claim made by Wood that there are teachers who have abused the accrued leave policy and annually rolled-over leave should be curtailed for the good of students.

Teacher Kristen Pope said ac-crued leave is an essential safety net in case of personal emergency for those in a line of work that is not high-dollar.

“But if it were about the money, I would not be in this profession,” Pope said.


Clayton Blackstock, attorney for PACT, told the board that if it goes ahead with plans to establish a personnel-policies committee (PPC) by July 1, it will be breaking its own policy, which stipulates the first quarter of the school year as the time to hold elections for teacher members of the PPC.

He argued that there is not enough time before the end of the school year for elections and garnering teacher input on the revised personnel policies that run almost 200 pages.

The board intends to make a final vote, teacher input or not, on the new policies at its next regular meeting, June 15.

Blackstock said that the board has two choices: either follow the provisions of the existing agreement with teachers, which stipulates re-opening of negotiations, or PPC policy.

“Whatever method, it provides for some reasonable input from the employees,” Blackstock said. “Teachers are entitled to review the policies over the entire year. The morale of employees is critical to success of any business.”


The board voted in December to immediately withdraw recognition of PACT as the collective bargaining agent for the 1,200-plus teachers of PCSSD. In a lawsuit subsequently filed by PACT against the district, Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Tim Fox ruled April 8 that the board’s vote was “null and void” because it violated state law, but that the board had the authority to withdraw recognition and establish a PPC if it did so in accord with state law. Attorneys on both sides have since been arguing over which state laws have primacy.

On April 20, the board again voted to end the district’s relationship with the union and set a date for establishing a PPC. On May 11, the board voted 4-3 to not ratify the contract which teachers had ratified in December. The union contends that the board is bound by current contract, which lays out a process for renegotiation or resolving impasse if that occurs. The contract also gives the board authority to ultimately withdraw recognition of the union only after all other options have been exhausted.
The current contract has been in effect since 2006 and has no end date.


In closing arguments, Jay Bequette, attorney for PCSSD, scoffed at Blackstock’s assertion that “chaos” would ensue in the next school year if the hastily crafted personnel policies are adopted.

The policies were modeled on policies used in other school districts in Arkansas, recommendations from the Arkansas School Board Association, as well as the existing PACT-PCSSD agreement and district policies already on the books, he said.

“If those policies are being used, how can that be chaos?” Bequette said. “That is sort of a scare tactic.”

After the meeting, Clark said that the decision was “not against teachers, but against the union.”
A strong union supporter when he joined the board in 2008, Clark has since become a strong proponent of a switching to a

PPC because of union tactics that have been hurtful to individuals, he said.

As for the five hours of testimony he had heard from the teachers, Clark said, “I have sympathy for their concerns. I vow that they will be taken care of.”