State Board of Education approves Fort Smith schools’ request for teacher personnel committee

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 513 views 

The Arkansas State Board of Education (SBE) voted 8-0 Thursday (Dec. 13) to approve Fort Smith Public Schools (FSPS) request for a two-year waiver that would allow for the formation of a Personnel Policy Committee (PPC) that will negotiate on behalf of district teachers.

The FSPS Board of Education voted Nov. 26 to change the way the district negotiates with teachers regarding personnel policy and salaries, moving from negotiating with the Fort Smith Education Association (FSEA), formerly the Fort Smith Classroom Teachers Association (FSCTA), towards negotiating with a personnel policy committee made up of teachers from each of the district’s 27 campuses.

The move was deemed necessary because FSEA did not have membership of more than 50% of teachers in the district, which left the district out of compliance with state law 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.”

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, which it had done since 1970.

The FSPS board nulled the agreement with FSEA at the Nov. 26 meeting since the organization did not have membership of at least 50% of FSPS teachers but had to request a waiver from the state board in order to form a PPC later than the first quarter of the school year as instructed by Arkansas law.

Fort Smith attorney Joe D. Byars Jr. wrote a letter to the SBE on behalf of FSPS classroom teacher Carla Byars in opposition to the waiver request submitted to the school board.

“(While) the reason for the decision (to no longer negotiate with FSEA) technically appears valid based upon (membership), the actions of the administration in moving towards a Personnel Policies Committee or “PPC” indicate a motive of questionable good faith, to the concern by many teachers of possibility of an intent to manipulate and override the protections afforded classroom teachers through the existing, balanced personnel policies, and the Arkansas Statutes for which a waiver is being requested by the District,” the letter states.

Among the issues raised in the letter was that FSEA was not given proper notice of the move to terminate their negotiating rights.

The negotiations agreement between the district and FSEA provided, in part, “This agreement is made and entered into this 23rd day of March for a period of not less than one year and will continue to be in full force after that date until terminated by the Board or amended by the procedures outlined below. …Any party desiring changes in this agreement will notify the other parties in writing at least thirty days prior to March 23 of any year.”

Byars stated in the letter that FSEA was not given a 30-day notice.

“In fact, the vote to terminate was not even placed upon the public agenda of the Board prior to taking action to terminate the agreement,” the letter states.

The letter also raised questions as to whether the waiver would allow for statutory guidance for the representative composition of the PPC or how members would be selected.

“There is a heightened concern among the Fort Smith Public School teachers that the administration simply desires to remove any ‘control’ or ability of the teachers to have a representative voice. The reason given by the administration in essence – to make sure classroom teachers ‘are represented’ is not consistent with its actions. Usually, when a party says one thing, and does another, there are future plans not placed on the table. Any request to ‘waive’ state law should be viewed with a skeptical eye, and only where a good faith and compelling reason exists for a waiver should it ever be granted,” the letter states.

The waiver granted by SBE was affected by two statutes, Ark. Code Ann. § 6-17-203 and § 6-17-205, which enables FSPS to organize and schedule elections for the PPC.

“There was some discussion of the specific pieces we needed in this waiver,” Dr. Doug Brubaker, FSPS superintendent, said of the meeting held with SBE Thursday.

Part of that waiver includes allowing for the PPC to be formed now, after the first quarter of the school year, which is when the law says elections should be held. The other aspect is that district leadership can set up the elections, Brubaker said.

In reaction to the SBE decision, Byars said he hoped the school board and the administration would provide a good explanation of their plans for the PPC and “operate with absolute transparency in putting the committee in place.”

“Our legislature enacted the Arkansas Statute (A.C.A. Section 6-17-203) for a reason – to make sure the classroom teachers do have an actual voice in connection with the personnel policies. We also hope that the teachers on the committee are not just hand-selected by the Administration but are selected by the teachers with a vote,” Byars said.

Brubaker said he believes the district’s plans for PPC elections will meet the wants of the teachers.

“The leadership team and the district will get help from an accounting firm or election services to conduct the elections. It is crucial that the entire process is transparent and that the best practices be followed so everyone can feel good about the process,” Brubaker said.

The plan is to have the elections within the next 60 days, he said. Each of the two high school campuses will elect three representatives; the junior high campuses will elect two representatives each; and the elementary and specialty campuses will elect one representative each. There will be a total of 35 teacher representatives on the committee. There will be three appointed administrative representatives on the committee to keep it consistent with law.

“Something we have heard is that teachers wanted to elect by campuses because they know their peers on their own campuses the best,” Brubaker said.

Once PPC members are elected for their initial two-year terms, they will elect a president and secretary, adopt a meeting schedule, and perform the other PPC functions described in the law.

“We are thrilled with this decision,” Brubaker said. “The waiver is so that the people at the table to talk about teacher personnel policy are elected by their peers. This is a huge, positive change for Fort Smith schools.”

He also noted that teachers will be able to have representation on personnel policy issues through the new process without having to pay membership fees to any organization.

“Today, the State Board of Education authorized the waivers needed to implement the district’s PPC transition plan. We are grateful for this vote of confidence and will continue to work with our teachers to implement these positive changes,” he said.

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