Tuesday, August 24, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Board does Impossible

The Pulaski County Special School District has done the impossible—it has managed to generate sympathy and widespread support for the strident, take-no-prisoners teachers’ union.

Time and again the board, or at least a four-member majority, has tried to terminate recognition of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers as the negotiating agent for the teachers. They have illegally booted the union and tried to replace it with an improperly constituted personnel-policy committee. Judge Tim Fox has called the district for this—more than once—because the board insists on proceeding as if Fox hadn’t said anything.

The board has attempted to replace the union with a hastily assembled “professional negotiations agreement”—teachers’ contract for short—with a set of personnel policies.

The negotiators for the district and the teachers reached a tentative agreement, ratified by the teachers Dec. 6, but on Dec. 8 the board surprised the teachers, voting the proposed contract down and declining further discussions.

Soon thereafter, the board voted, illegally it turns out, to cease recognition of the union as negotiator for the teachers.

Many of the reasons the board wants to get rid of PACT are personal—board member Charlie Wood doesn’t like unions and says he will never vote for a teacher contract longer than five pages. Tim Clark, who was elected with the support of the union, finally switched sides when he interpreted ill-chosen words by Emry Chesterfield, president not of PACT, but of the Pulaski Association of Support Staff—mostly bus drivers—as a threat against his family.

But the rationale for the board’s anti-union antics has been its assertion that PACT doesn’t represent most of the teachers.

Well, last Wednesday, the board got a real wakeup call on that one.

That was the day teachers rejected board-approved proposed changes to a personnel policy by a vote of 1,140 to 221.
Despite a $1,100 bonus “inducement,” 84 percent of those teachers who voted turned thumbs down on the policy, and by implication, the personnel-policy committee itself.

Even Wood now admits the obvious. Like it or not, PACT does represent the majority—vast majority—of district teachers.

It’s good the board and the union resumed full negotiations for a new contract on Tuesday. Currently the 2006-2009 contract remains in effect through the end of this new school year.

With Wood and fellow board member Danny Gililland up for re-election Sept. 21, the entire complexion of the board, which currently has an immutable 4-3 majority in opposition to union rule, will likely change if either loses.

Wood is challenged by former teacher and PACT member Gloria Lawrence, Gililland by Tom Stuthard, who is married to a Sylvan Hills math teacher.

PACT has endorsed Lawrence and Stuthard, contributing $2,000 to the campaign of each and union members will volunteer on the phones and knock on doors.

The crisis de jour facing the district is the new school-day schedule—that’s “bell-schedule” that new Superintendent Charles Hopson has implemented by fiat.

Apparently everyone has a dog in this hunt.

Hopson says it’s an education matter, and with his purview, he says it will allow more classroom time, planning time for teachers during the school day, and make PCSSD students more competitive academically.

Many agitated parents—stirred up by the union—say it is inconvenient and makes the school day too long. And PACT, predictably, says the bell schedule is part of the union contract and can’t be changed without negotiation.

At first, the bell-schedule change was for elementary schools. It would have started the day earlier for those students (and teachers) and parents complained it would leave their youngsters standing in the dark awaiting the bus.

Hopson reversed course on that, leaving elementary schools on the old schedule, but starting secondary schools earlier, leaving everyone unhappy, leaving most of us to wonder: Are the children learning?

A group of parents, led by activist Dawn Jackson, has petitioned the board for a special meeting on the bell schedule.

Jackson’s group says the bell schedule is a policy matter, something for the board to decide.

And of course the teachers, who don’t want their school day lengthened nor any challenge to the union contract, say the bell schedule can’t be changed without their approval.

Hopson has written an open letter to district patrons saying that the decision was and is his, as an educational matter.

While his outreach is impressive and unprecedented in this district, it’s not going to satisfy either the teachers or the parents represented by Jackson.