Friday, February 24, 2012

TOP STORY >> Negotiations in PCSSD fail as two sides still far apart

Leader senior staff writer

Unions representing Pulaski County Special School District employees declared an impasse over contract negotiations Friday and asked state and federal mediators for a 10 a.m. Tuesday meeting. But three members of a former PCSSD personnel policy committee then called for election of teachers to a new personnel committee that could be empowered to replace the unions.

“I’m pleased with the unions’ recognition that we need to sit and talk,” state-appointed PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess said late Friday afternoon. “We want to talk about all the issues.

“The union has suggested a meeting date of Tuesday, and though the schedule of our negotiators will not permit that, we are offering to meet on Thursday,” Guess said.

But Marty Nix, president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, and Emry Chesterfield, president of the Pulaski Association of Support Staff, wrote to Guess on Friday afternoon, notifying him of contact with the mediators.

Nix and Chesterfield wrote: “We will address the financial needs that you presented to the state Board of Education and the ways in which PACT and PASS can help, but we will not give up all of our professional negotiated agreements in the process.”

The teachers say the district wants to balance the budget by taking salary and benefits from the employees. The district says that’s where the money is.

PCSSD is so deep in fiscal distress that the state Education Department took it over in May, dissolving the school board, firing Superintendent Charles Hopson and appointing Guess superintendent. Guess and PCSSD chief financial officer Bill Goff want to cut the 2012-13 budget by about $13 million.

About 80 percent of the district’s $170 million budget is salary and benefits, so that attempt has brought the administration and unions into sharp conflict, because nearly all cuts would come out of their pockets.

The first bargaining session between PCSSD and the unions lasted just 30 minutes Wednesday. The teachers wanted to approve salaries (with no increase) and health benefits (with the district’s contribution cut in half), before discussing other policies that could include leave policy, professional growth classes, teacher-evaluation rules and compensation for non-teaching duties.

PCSSD negotiators told the unions that was a nonstarter, that everything was on the table and left the meeting.

“PACT and PASS have said in the media that they had offered to not propose raises for 2012-13 and or fringe benefits,” Guess said Friday. “But not getting a raise is not the same as a cut. Quite simply, that doesn’t help our budgetary situation with no changes to salary or fringe benefits. If I agreed to that I’d have taken off about 80 percent of the budget. When I agree to that, there is not much more to do.”

Guess told the state Board of Education on Feb. 13 that if the unions wouldn’t cooperate, he would act unilaterally, but he wouldn’t cite the authority to do so.

But ceasing recognition of the unions as bargaining agents for the employees and replacing them with personnel policy committees could open up renegotiation of aspects of the existing contract, including but not limited to:

Benefits, compensation, designation of workdays, holidays and non-instructional days, methods of evaluations, extra duties, leave, grievances, dismissal or non-renewal, reduction in force and assignment of teacher aides, according to Ark. Code Ann. §6-17-201(c).

A personnel policy committee would include three administrators and at least five teachers, and if one is to be formed, PACT can be expected to rally its members to fill the teacher positions.

“In light of the recent events in our district — the takeover by the state Board of Education, fiscal distress and renewed negotiations for upcoming contracts — the former personnel policies committee feels it would be wise to form a new committee to represent certified employees,” according to part of a letter sent to all certified PCSSD personnel by three members of the previous personnel policies committee, Robin Dorey, Traci Holland and Lani Moore.

Yesterday afternoon was the deadline for teacher nominations to a new personnel committee, according to the letter.

An entire negotiation represents an opportunity to reexamine any aspect of the contracts, including current policy that allows teachers to chose who evaluates them and a policy that allows teachers to earn more by taking homegrown professional growth classes taught at the district with local teachers paid — even for classes such as teaching Dr. Seuss books, Guess said.

“Professional growth courses are typically those taught at a university,” Guess said. Salary schedule movement is based on graduate-level courses.

“I know of no other district where teachers can advance on the professional growth salary schedule based upon non-college classes taught in the district,” he said.

He said professional growth salary, much of it based on the local classes, costs the district about $2.8 million a year.

The sprawling district, bogged down by a cumbersome desegregation agreement, and its powerful unions have an acrimonious history at least a decade old. It is marked by strikes, legal and illegal efforts by the board to decertify the unions and administrations and boards that ignored court rulings and binding arbitration.

The board was often divided, unions putting up friendly faces to run for board seats and campaigning for them.

PACT responded to neither phone messages, text messages or e-mails by press time.