Leader Blues

Friday, July 11, 2008

TOP STORY > >District goes after union

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District Board fired a warning shot across the bow of the district’s powerful teachers’ union in eight hours of public meetings Tuesday and paused just shy of decertifying the support staff union—a decertification that may have been postponed, not averted.

“I vote to terminate negotiations with (Pulaski Association of Support Staff) and decertify it as the bargaining agent for the support staff,” said board member Danny Gilliland. It was on Gilliland’s motion in May 2007 that the board suddenly moved to reinstate PASS as the bargaining agent.

School board president Charlie Wood said he would never approve a support staff contract longer than five pages.

“We can postpone it for one month, but I think the issue is settled,” said Wood.

PASS, which also includes bus drivers, wants a 3.5 percent pay increase and a 3.5 percent step/grade increase, which would cost the district another $1 million, according to Chief Financial Officer Larry O’Briant.

The administration has recommended a 1.66 percent increase for support staff, plus longevity increases.

Four of the seven school board members said they would vote to decertify the Pulaski Association of Support Staff as the support staff’s bargaining agent, just before Jacksonville board member Bill Vasquez proposed discussing the contract at a special board workshop. Vasquez’ motion was unanimously approved.

The two sides are far apart and it may be that nothing short of capitulation by the union will prevent its decertification.

The district has been slow to implement expensive changes since emerging last year from fiscal distress and state Education Department oversight, and the contract proposed by Superintendent James Sharpe says the district must begin cutting $16 to $20 million — its share of the $60 million annual state desegregation supplement — from its $190 million annual budget. That could be even more difficult than it seems since salaries and benefits probably account for more than $150 million of that, according to figures provided by O’Briant.

Wood and board member Pam Roberts said with large cuts in desegregation aid likely looming, the district was not in a position to grant large pay increases or to sign new multi-year contracts. The teachers typically negotiate a three-year contract and PASS was asking for a three-year contract.

“I’m not going to approve additional pay increases,” Roberts said.

“We’re going to have to contract negotiations with teachers soon,” Wood said. “It’s time to deal with the teachers directly.”
O’Brian told the board he believes revenues will be up a bit next year, despite the loss of about $900,000 in state aid based on the enrollment loss of about 150 students.

Legislation proposed by state Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville authorizes the phasing out of the desegregation money over as many as seven years.

Federal District Judge Bill Wilson could release PCSSD, North Little Rock and Little Rock districts from the agreement within months. Wilson has already ruled that Little Rock is essentially desegregated and both North Little Rock and PCSSD have applied to be considered unitary, or desegregated.

Sharpe opened the four-hour board workshop that preceded the regular monthly meeting by saying, “We need to stand up to such meanness as PACT has tried to permeate,” citing a letter served on him at dinner by the teachers’ union.

PACT president Marty Nix responded that the administration and board don’t provide sufficient student discipline, ignore district policy and a court ruling requiring them to abide by the wishes of site-based school councils and violated the teachers contract.

The teachers say they are blamed for the district’s financial woes and other problems. “When did we become the enemy,” asked union representative Nix, reading a poem in which each verse ended in that refrain.

The Pulaski Association of Class Room Teachers (PACT) and PASS went on strike in 2003. The teachers settled with the board, leaving PASS alone on the picket line and in January 2004, the school board decertified PASS as the bargaining agent of the support staff.

In a related issue, the board could approve Sharpe’s recommendation to save the district $2.1 million over three years, by outsourcing school bus driving to First Student, formerly Laidlaw.

The drivers are adamantly opposed to the change, telling the board members that no one will care for the children like they do and emphasizing problems they say First Student has had elsewhere.

One suggested that some First Student drivers elsewhere are trying to join the Teamsters Union. “Who would you rather negotiate with, PASS or the Teamsters?” asked one.

While there is considerable support on the board to outsource the school-bus driving, the board gave transportation director Brad Montgomery until the next meeting to cut 6 percent from his budget, which would negate much of the savings anticipated from outsourcing.

The drivers, including PASS president Emry Chesterfield, said they thought the matter had been put to rest and were surprised to be back before the board fighting for their jobs.

“We’re not going to stand and let you run over us,” Chesterfield said. “First Student is sucking you in. Whatever decision you make, we’re all going to pay the price.”

“I thought we took it off the table,” said board member Gwen Williams, a stalwart union supporter.

“Mr. Sharpe, can you guarantee us you’re not going to outsource bus driving?” she asked.

“I have to come up with how to exist without $16 million to $20 million (a year),” Sharpe said. “We can save $2.3 million. I have to look at outsourcing.”

He said he had to find savings outside of the classroom, places like transportation, maintenance and food services.

“The priority has to be students, not jobs,” he said.

First Student has tried to counter the concern of current bus drivers by agreeing that virtually all would be retained as district employees under a two-tier system where new hires would be phased in as First Student employees. But if drivers remain district employees, it reduces the savings to the district by 60 percent to 70 percent for the first year, Sharpe said.