Leader Blues

Saturday, December 26, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Say goodbye to PCSSD

Lord knows we love teachers. We count on them to not only keep peace in the classrooms, but to arm our children with the skills and knowledge they need to graduate, further their education and find their ways in the real world.

And the teachers couldn’t do what they do without the help of the support staff—the bus drivers, janitors, maintenance workers, the secretaries and cafeteria workers.

This is true at Pulaski County Special School District and the other districts we cover on a regular or occasional basis.

But we don’t always think PCSSD employees are well served by their union leaders—and neither do we think the unions and employees are always treated fairly by the school board. For instance, both submitted to binding arbitration over an issue, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the teachers and the board dragged its feet for more than a year before making the ordered restitution.

In recent years, the teachers have taken to cultivating board members and have worked behind the scenes to elect board members who promised to be friendly to their objectives.

They did so until it appeared that with the election of Tim Clark, who ran unopposed for the seat previously held by Pam Roberts, they could control the board or at least count on a majority of the board members to vote favorably on issues important to them.

Over the last year, they could always count on Gwen Williams’ vote, and Clark and Bill Vasquez were steadfast supporters.

Depending on the issue, unions could often pick up one more votes for a majority on the seven-person board.

One of the first things Clark did upon taking office in September 2008 was to put the brakes on an effort led by board member Charlie Wood to strip recognition from the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, and Clark was the deciding vote that recognized the Pulaski Association of Support Staff as the negotiating agent for the support staff at a subsequent meeting.

“You don’t decertify a union to avoid negotiating a contract,” Clark said at the time.

What a difference a year makes.

This month, after some nastiness by the teachers and a perceived threat against Clark’s family by the head of the support staff union, Clark joined Wood, Danny Gilliland and Mildred Tatum to strip recognition of both PACT and PASS as bargaining agents for the employees—and once again it was in the middle of contract negotiations.

Both union and PCSSD negotiators had reached an agreement after seven months at the table, and the union rank and file ratified that contract Dec. 8. Employees and their representatives entered the regular school board meeting expecting the board to ratify the agreement already signed by its negotiating team.

But when Clark, the board president, told union officials that not all board members had had time to review the 25-page document and the issue could not be considered that night, things turned ugly in a hurry.

PACT president Marty Nix said the board had favored stripping things out of the contract from the outset—71 takeaways, she said.

After several minutes of heated talk, Nix concluded: “If your word means nothing, you are nothing.”

Then PASS president Emry Chesterfield addressed the board, expressing his frustration for several minutes. While at the podium, Chesterfield mocked Deborah Coley, an assistant superintendent who was also one of the district’s negotiators. “You don’t do nothing unless you’re told,” he said.

“Sit down,” said Clark. “You’re grandstanding.”

“I’m going to go ahead and sit down, but you have to realize, your kids are at home,” said Chesterfield.

Several people, including Clark and Tatum, interim Superintendent Rob McGill and others interpreted his comments as a threat against Clark and his family.

Later, Chesterfield said he was telling Clark not to treat him like a child—that his children were at home.

But the damage was done, and moments later Wood, who admits he was glad to have a reason to act against the unions, moved to decertify them as negotiating agents.

At a specially-called meeting two hours later, Wood, Clark, Gilliland and Tatum decertified the unions. Vasquez warned that it was a bad idea, especially as a federal judge gets ready to decide the fate of the district in a desegregation hearing, and Williams also voted against it. New school board member Sandra Sawyer reportedly left the meeting, upset about bickering among board members.

We think that Clark is autocratic and interested in conducting much of the public’s business behind closed doors. But he has proven single-mindedly effective in promoting his own agenda and the unions made a bad mistake in alienating him.

The board meanwhile is still slated with the responsibility of working to improve education in PCSSD schools and its members should be spending their time working hard to do this. We don’t usually see eye-to-eye with Wood, but his idea of merit-based raises for teachers, where deserving teachers get raises and lackluster ones don’t, may help the board communicate its expectations to teachers.

We don’t endorse this notion, but we believe it deserves investigation. It is one more reason for Jacksonville to form its own school district soon.