Questions raised about teacher negotiating policy with Fort Smith Public Schools

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,522 views 

Fort Smith Public Schools may have to look at new way to negotiate with teachers regarding personnel policy and salaries. The policy now allows the district to negotiate with the Fort Smith Education Association (FSEA), formerly the Fort Smith Classroom Teachers Association (FSCTA), which was approved in 1987.

Marshall Ney of the Friday Law Firm, legal counsel for the district, presented information to the Fort Smith Public Schools Board of Education at Monday (Nov. 12) night’s study session stating that the district might not be in compliance with state law when dealing with certified staff policies.

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 in 1987, Ney said. At that time, more than 50% of FSPS teachers belonged to FSEA (then FSCTA).

The Arkansas State Teachers Association (ASTA) wrote a letter to FSPS, dated Nov. 6, stating “there is reason to believe [FSEA’s] membership has fallen below 50% since this agreement was made. If this is the case, recognition of [FSEA] has become a serious policy compliance issue,” Ney informed the board.

According to ASTA, FSPS teacher membership in FSEA has dropped steadily in the past 10 years and is around 31%. It came to those numbers by looking at payroll deductions, Ney said.

Lorrie Woodward, a teacher at Cavanaugh Elementary School and FSEA president, said they did not know the exact percentage of teachers who were members of the organization.

“Currently, FSEA does not have over 50% membership and has not for some time. It’s the disadvantage of living in a Right to Work state where everyone receives the same benefits of negotiations even if they aren’t members. We understand that the law requires a majority. It was never a concern to anyone until now. However, compiling our numbers is not a simple thing. We have people who pay with payroll deduct, credit card, check, and cash. All of these have to be reconciled each month,” Woodward said in an email to Talk Business & Politics.

“FSEA has always tried to include all district employees at every level in our processes. We’ve sent out multiple surveys about what teachers would like to see changed/fixed/implemented. We take the ones with the most people behind it to the negotiations table and/or to the superintendent or his designee. We have invited folks in to work on the calendar with us before we go to the table. We listen to everyone and try to put forth the best possible options for every teacher and student in the district. We hold meetings and professional development classes for members and nonmembers alike,” she added.

Zena Featherston Marshall, FSPS executive director of communication and community partnerships, said first the district has to learn what percent of teachers belong to FSEA and then the matter has to be addressed.

“This really was just brought to our attention and calls our policy into question,” Marshall said.

The district negotiates with classified staff through a personnel policy committee made up of elected secretaries, maintenance personnel and paraprofessional personnel, who are elected to serve on the committee, Marshall said. The committee meets periodically and negotiates with the district on policy, she said.

“We’ll probably look at something along those lines, but this was just brought to our attention,” Marshall said. “It’s really a matter of thinking through the process.”

Marshall said a proposal on the issue should be presented to the BOE at the Nov. 26 regularly scheduled meeting.