Friday, May 04, 2012

TOP STORY >> Unions file lawsuit to keep right to bargain

Leader senior staff writer

Pulaski County Special School District’s two employee unions were back in court Friday, asking a pair of Pulaski County circuit judges to order their contracts be reinstated and to order the district to again recognize the unions as the bargaining agents for the employees.

The Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers is suing in Judge Mary McGowan’s 9th Division Court, while the Pulaski Association of Support Staff is in Judge Wendell Griffen’s 5th Division Court.

The PCSSD has been designated as being in fiscal distress and the district and the unions negotiated unsuccessfully to cut about $11 million out of the next budget. When the unions failed to accede to district requirements, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell authorized—instructed, actually—PCSSD Superintendent Jerry Guess to end the contracts three years early and to send the unions packing.

Not surprisingly, the unions say this was done improperly and illegally, and Friday they returned to court to ask circuit judges to overturn those actions.

“We haven’t seen (the amended complaints) and will hold comment until we do,” said Guess, whose fiscal distress recovery plan included the actions to which the unions object.

Guess was reached on his way to a funeral out of state.

Neither of the district’s two longtime lawyers, Sam Jones of Mitchell, Williams Selig and Jay Bequette of Bequette Billingsley, had received a copy of the amended complaints filed Friday.

The original complaints, filed by the unions two months ago, asked the courts to find illegal or improper two personnel policy committees formed with an eye toward dismissing the unions.

In an April 20 letter, Kimbrell told Guess to terminate the contracts June 30 and to cease recognition of the unions immediately. Hence the amended complaints. These two unions have prevailed pretty regularly in court when the district has tried to run them off.

In a press release, Pulaski Association of Class-room Teachers president Marty Nix said, “Guess’ financial demands and goals increased with each meeting, culminating with nonrenewal letters to teachers. We believe the (state education commissioner) exceeded his authority when he removed the union contracts and recognition.”

“We’ve made a constitutional claim,” said union attorney Mark Burnette of the Mitchell Blackstock firm. “We’re saying there are elements (in the district and state’s actions) not covered by the state law that gives them the right to do some (other things.)” He said the unions’ position is that state law did not give the commissioner or the state education department authority to nullify the union contracts.

In its complaint, PACT charged that the state “exceeded the scope of its statutory authority and were arbitrary, capricious and in bad faith.

“The Arkansas Department of Education impaired the plaintiffs’ contractual rights in violation of both the state and federal constitutions.

“The district breached the professional negotiating agreement by withdrawing recognition and by unilaterally terminating the plethora of provisions of the PNA that were not subject to modification through the four-step negotiation procedure.”

Both suits claim the district breached the agreement by failing to complete the mediation process before modifying the agreement.

It claims that the district violated state law by recognizing the professional personnel committees and withdrawing union recognition and that the committees are illegal and have no power or authority.

District officials say they will respond after they have seen the amended complaints. The unions are reaching out for public support and will have a rally at the Capitol at 10 a.m. this morning.