Leader Blues

Friday, October 17, 2008

TOP STORY > >Seismic shift in PCSSD as unions gain

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Signaling a seismic shift in the balance of power, board-member allies of Pulaski County Special School District’s powerful teachers’ union Tuesday elected Mildred Tatum as school board president, denying a second term to Charlie Wood.

By a 4-3 vote last month, after several false starts in recent months, Wood and fellow board members Pam Roberts, Danny Gilliland and Shana Chaplin finally succeeded in withdrawing recognition of the Pulaski Association of Support Staff as bargaining agent for bus drivers and other non-certified personnel, firing a warning shot across the bow of the Pulaski
Association of Classroom Teachers in the process.

But Roberts didn’t run for re-election, and when Tim Clark, who ran unopposed for the Maumelle-area seat, took her place Tuesday, he served notice immediately that he had a different agenda.

First he joined board members Tatum, Gwen Williams and Bill Vasquez to block Wood’s proposed addendum to the agenda. The three he joined each have a record of support for issues important to the two unions.

Clark has already said he would review the board’s action in withdrawing PASS’s recognition, which came after the board, Wood in particular, was displeased with the union’s contract offers.

He previously told The Leader that he wanted to make sure the process was fair and that PASS had an ample opportunity to review the district’s final contract offer and make a counter proposal.

Then, Clark threw in with the three union-friendly board members, electing Tatum over Wood for president, Vasquez over Chaplin for vice president and Williams over Gilliland for secretary.

In speaking for his own reelection, Wood said, “This is the critical year for the district (regarding release from the desegregation agreement) and I want to see it through to the finish.”

Following the elections, PACT President Marty Nix rushed from the room to contain her mirth, returning later behind a big grin.
Clark also joined Tatum, Vasquez and Williams in declining to rehire the law firm of Bequette and Billingsley to represent the board in matters other than desegregation.

Bequette and Billingsley have represented the district for years. Recently at least, Jay Bequette’s counsel to the board has been at the expense of the unions.

“The board can’t do anything without checking with Jay,” said Tatum in recommending the change. “Jay is not a board member.”

Clark and Superintendent James Sharpe said they would draw up a request-for-qualifications advertisement seeking to hire new board lawyers.

If the new alliance holds—and it’s too early to know—the changes could be far-reaching.

First, the board could recognize PASS as the support staff bargaining agent, as early as the November board meeting, earlier if a special meeting was called.

Clark’s election improves the chances for larger salary increases for all employees at contract time.

It could also increase the number of schools where teacher-dominated site-based decision making councils are recognized and also whether or not schools operate on the seven-period day or the modified A-B block schedule.

The vote may represent a setback for principals, whose authority is challenged by site-based councils, and particularly to Jacksonville Boys Middle School Principal Mike Nellums, who is often at odds with the teachers’ union, but apparently not with the teachers at his school.

It is unclear if the shift in power threatens the board’s endorsement of a standalone Jacksonville school district.

The board’s vote of support recently was unanimous, but the teachers’ union is concerned that its members could be shuffled, assigned to schools they don’t want and that PACT and PASS might have no standing in a Jacksonville district.