Fort Smith School Board votes to change teacher negotiation process

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 1,165 views 

The Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education voted during their regular meeting Monday (Nov. 26) to change the way the district negotiates with teachers regarding personnel policy and salaries.

The board voted unanimously to move away from negotiating with the Fort Smith Education Association (FSEA), formerly the Fort Smith Classroom Teachers Association (FSCTA), towards negotiating with a personnel policy committee (PPC) made up of teachers from each of the district’s 27 campuses.

“This isn’t, for me, a vote of what I want to do. I don’t see any way around it. The statute says, if it means what we’re being told by our counsel, it means although I believe it is poorly written, if it means that, I don’t know what else we can do,” said Greg Magness, at large board member.

Marshall Ney of the Friday Law Firm, legal counsel for the district, presented information to the board stating that the district was not in compliance with state law when dealing with certified staff policies. FSPS has negotiated with FSEA since 1970.

AR Code § 6-17-203 states that “(a) Each school district shall have a committee on personnel policies which shall consist of no fewer than five (5) classroom teachers and no more than three (3) administrators, one (1) of which may be the superintendent. (b) (1) The classroom teacher members of each school district’s committee on personnel policies shall be elected by a majority of the classroom teachers voting by secret ballot. (2) The election shall be solely and exclusively conducted by the classroom teachers, including the distribution of ballots to all classroom teachers,” states information provided by Ney at the meeting.

There is an exception to the law that allows a school district to choose to officially recognize an organization representing the majority of teachers of the school district for personnel policies, salaries, and educational matters of mutual concern under a written policy agreement. This is what FSPS did when it entered into an agreement with FSEA.

At the time, FSEA, then FSCTA, had membership greater than 50% of all FSPS teachers.

Through a letter dated Nov. 6, the Arkansas State Teachers Association (ASTA) brought into question whether FSEA’s membership now constituted 51% or greater of the FSPS teachers.

Though she could not give an official number of members, FSEA president Lorrie Woodward, a teacher at Cavanaugh Elementary School, estimated teacher membership in FSEA to be around 379 of the 1,184 FSPS teachers.

John Joplin, Sid Johnson and Woodward, all representing FSEA, spoke to the board during citizenship participation, which was moved from the typical end of the meeting position on the agenda to just before consideration of a resolution to form a PPC for negotiating purposes.

All three commented that although membership might not meet the required 51%, the union does survey all district employees, including nonmembers, regarding all policies to be addressed and takes the data from those surveys to create proposals brought to the negotiations.

“Once policy is agreed upon by the full committee, FSEA takes the policy proposals to all district employees, including nonmembers, for a vote,” information distributed at Monday’s board meeting said. The law does not specify membership in the organization, simply representation of the majority.”

FSEA representatives requested the board put off the vote for rescinding the negotiating rights of FSEA, stating that the board had given them neither formal notification nor a chance for discussion.

“It would be better to put this off. I cannot imagine a more fundamentally unfair process than to basically destroy an organization just on a vote when the whole process has just been two weeks and it’s been over a holiday period,” Joplin said, questioning whether the entire process had been handled with proper due process. “This a 50-year organization. The purpose of their existence is to look after the welfare of our teachers and their families and try to improve their lives.”

About 120 people attended the meeting, many of whom were teachers against moving to the PPC negotiations.

Though no teachers for the move towards a PPC spoke at Monday’s meeting, Dr. Doug Brubaker, FSPS superintendent, said he has heard from both sides on the issue and had heard some of those for the change in negotiation procedure did not feel comfortable speaking in public on the subject.

Ney said that not changing the negotiating policy could leave the district open to lawsuits from teachers who did not believe they were being fairly represented. With Monday night’s vote, the plan now is to establish a certified PPC for the purpose of negotiating policy for certified staff.

“We want to make sure we have representation from each of the campuses. So, we recognize some of the campuses are bigger than others in terms of the number of teachers. We’re working on a proportional representation model where elementary (schools) have one represented (from each campus), junior highs two, high schools three. And that corresponds roughly to the proportion of staff members at those campuses,” Brubaker said.

Because district PPCs are supposed to be voted on during the first quarter of the school year, the board’s resolution endorsed the superintendent’s waiver request to the Arkansas State Board of Education requesting a formation of that PPC after the first quarter of the 2018-19 school year.

The PPC representatives from each campus will be voted on by secret ballot by the teachers at each campus, Brubaker said. The plan is to have the PPC in place for negotiations in the spring, he added, noting the group would be a cross section of all the teachers in the district.

“That’s kind of the exciting part is that each time that we’ve engaged a large group of people to help us figure out solutions to challenging situations, they’ve come through for us. I think that will be true with elected representatives from each campus too,” Brubaker said.

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