Monday, April 30, 2012

EDITORIAL >> Teachers, district split

Getting rid of the unions in the Pulaski County Special School District may not be the panacea the state’s education commissioner and others make it out to be. All it does is kick the problem down the road about two or three years.

Superintendent Jerry Guess told The Leader yesterday the district had no choice but to dismiss the unions because they refused to acknowledge the district’s financial problems. But the state commissioner, Dr. Tom Kimbrell of Cabot, is anti-union and has shown that at all of his stops up to the state’s top job. It’s interesting that he got rid of the unions—a school board action—behind closed doors.

Is ignoring the unions best for the district or just something Kimbrell has wanted to do for a long time? When he was named the superintendent for the North Little Rock School District, the president of the North Little Rock Classroom Teachers’ Association voiced opposition to Kimbrell’s selection based on his anti-union bias. It was clear the North Little Rock job was just a stepping stone for Kimbrell, who didn’t leave a cadre of teacher friends when he left his superintendent’s position in Paragould for North Little Rock.

The first concerns patrons of the Pulaski County Special School District should have with the state takeover is when are decisions made by Kimbrell the state commissioner and when are decisions made by Kimbrell the one-man school board? Shouldn’t all school board actions be made in an open forum?

Guess has said the unions wouldn’t budge and wouldn’t negotiate. The union, in paperwork submitted to Kimbrell, made it clear that Guess and district officials walked out of meetings and wouldn’t listen. The truth lies somewhere between.

The two sides did shave about $7 million from the district’s budget by working together, and most of that came from the teachers’ side. Those cuts resulted in a net pay cut of hundreds of dollars for many teachers and few cuts to the administrative side.

The unions reached a point where they wouldn’t bend any more and reminded the district of the desegregation money (about $20 million) coming in and there was no need to scrape for every dime yet. Both Kimbrell and Guess don’t want to look at that money, which will come in until the Legislature deals with it in the next session. Stopping those funds cold has already been thrown out in court.

The district continues to show why the unions were needed in the first place—a lack of transparency and trust. It’s been the district’s problem for more than 20 years. What Kimbrell should have done, since he closed his door to begin with, was to bring both sides in and show them the “Board of Education.”

The unions will sue, but will mostly likely lose, because in Arkansas, school boards can close their eyes and say, “Union, you don’t exist,” and poof—the union is gone. No reason required. The question legally will be: Can it be done in a closed forum as Kimbrell did?

But if the unions lose the suit, they will bide their time until the district is released from state control and candidates run for school board. The unions will back their candidates with a vengeance and the union-backed board will reinstate the union, as we’ve seen before.

If Kimbrell thinks the unions are a burden, a roadblock and thorn now, just wait.

The district would have been better off with a continued marriage, albeit rocky most of the time, rather than the ugly divorce it now has, which will affect the kids for years to come.