Wednesday, April 25, 2012

TOP STORY >> PCSSD unions try to survive amid turmoil

Leader senior staff writer

Alleging that the state Education Department and the Pulaski County Special School District are intent upon illegally dismantling 40 years worth of teacher and support staff gains, the district’s two unions are fighting for their lives after losing their certification last week.

But the unions say they won’t strike now, according to Marty Nix, president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers.

“We want to put fears to rest,” Nix said. “There won’t be a strike. We want to finish the year on a good note.”

Nix said negotiators for PACT and for the Pulaski Association of Support Staff entered budget talks with the district believing that both sides were interested in bringing the budget under control.

But it soon became apparent, she said, that the state and the district wanted to use the declining legal fund balance to pry open the entire contract and throw out most of the gains that two of the most powerful unions in the state had made on behalf of their members.

Nix said the declining-legal-fund-balance fiscal-distress designation was just the lever officials needed.

The district has been overturned in court in the past when attempting to run off the unions, she pointed out.

The next stop is Pulaski County Circuit Court, where the unions will challenge Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell’s instructions late Friday to Superintendent Jerry Guess to cease recognition of the unions as the bargaining agents.

Kimbrell told Guess to implement the sweeping cuts and changes in Guess’ proposal, even changes in conflict with the existing union contract set to expire in 2015.

Current contract would be honored only through the end of this school year. Pay cuts will go into effect in the fall.

The state has designated the district as being in fiscal distress twice in the last year — once for financial mismanagement, once for having a declining legal fund balance. The district and the state say PCSSD will be $32 million in the red by the end of the 2016-2017 school year unless dramatic cuts are made.

Guess has said that without a onetime windfall property tax infusion of about $15 million this year, the district would have finished $3 million in the hole.

“They want to reopen the contracts and put what they want in it,” said Emry Chesterfield, president of the Pulaski Association of Support Staff.

Nix and Chesterfield were given a unanimous vote of approval by union members at Monday’s emergency meeting.

“Morale is low, but we’re taking a conservative approach,” said Jacksonville High School math teacher Teressia Phillips as she left the meeting.

“We worked our behinds off in good faith,” Nix said. “I don’t think there was reciprocation at all.”

Nix calls it an “alleged” budget deficit and denies administrators’ claims that employee pay and benefits are at the root of the problem.

She says she’ll never apologize for fighting to get a good salary and benefits for employees.

“Did those gains contributed to a declining legal fund balance?” she asked. “No.”

She said that several years ago, teachers agreed to a three-year pay freeze, contributing to a $21 million legal fund balance, and that it’s not the union’s fault that the school board frittered the money away.

“This is the second year in a row we’ve agreed to a zero percent pay raise,” Nix said.

Clayton Blackstock, lawyer for the two unions, said Tuesday he hadn’t met with the union representatives since the emergency meeting and couldn’t say what kind of relief would be sought, on what grounds or when.

But promptly, Nix said.


Kimbrell hired Guess at $261,547 a year — an amount that union members like to note is more than the vice president of the United States makes.

They say the district has more than 50 administrators making more than $100,000 a year and another 90 or so making more than the teacher’s average salary of $61,856.

But while teachers are losing two paid days a year and pay for other nonteaching duties, “not a dime” is coming from the salary or benefits of those 140 employees,” according to the unions.


On Monday, PCSSD teachers were delivered letters in which Guess informed them they would not be rehired under the terms of the old contract, but would be renewed on different terms and conditions including:

Reduction of teacher salary schedule by two days.

Elimination of bus duty payments.

Elimination of payments for supervision 30 minutes before breakfast tutoring.

Elimination of compensation for lunch/recess duty for certified personnel.

Elimination of annual attendance incentive pay.

Elimination of one bereavement leave day

Phasing out 4 percent compensation for profession growth contracts.

Elimination of severance pay.

Changing “accrued” leave to “sick leave and reducing such leave by two days per year.

n Implementation of the new policies proposed by the Certified Personnel Policies Committee, effective July 1.

Both Guess and Kiimbrell say they have the authority to abrogate the existing contract, but so far, neither has cited specific authority.

The state does have the authority to fire a superintendent and dissolve a school board, Nix said Monday night, but, “we know our contract is binding, even in a right-to-work state.”

State law requires a personnel policy committee to represent teachers and another for classified personnel unless they are represented by unions, and employees and administrators already have formed those committees to replace the unions.

The unions have challenged those personnel policy committees in court, saying they were improperly constituted.

The state fired first-year superintendent Charles Hopson and dissolved the local school board, and Kimbrell, stepping in as a one-man board, hired Guess, a respected administrator, to clean up the mess.

Guess said the district needed to cut $11 million from its budget for next school year, and he and the unions were in agreement on about $7 million worth of cuts. Nix said the unions offered not only concessions but a plan to cut the rest, but after months of negotiating and mediation, district administrators were unsatisfied.

Among projected savings from some of the changes, Guess said retiring teachers were paid $800,000 in severance pay last year, have accrued leave in lieu of sick leave, which costs the district about $500,000 a year, and a liberal professional growth compensation policy that essentially pays teachers for lax, self-taught classes instead of the more rigorous post graduate courses required in virtually all other school districts.