Leader Blues

Friday, April 09, 2010

TOP STORY >> Both sides declaring win in court decision

By NANCY DOCKTER
Leader staff writer

The Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers once again is the bargaining agent for teachers in the Pulaski County Special School District, Circuit Judge Timothy D. Fox ruled Thursday.

For now.

Both sides are claiming victory in Fox’s ruling in the lawsuit brought by the union against the school board.

Fox ruled that the board did have the authority to terminate the union’s standing as bargaining agent, but did not follow the state law.

The district withdrew recognition of PACT at an emergency meeting Dec. 8, “effective immediately” but failed to first have a policies and personnel policy committee in place as required by state law.

Fox declared the board decision “null and void.”

“I was pleased with Fox’s ruling,” school board president Tim Clark said. “We do have the right to decertify the union, but our timing was not right. At least we know what we can do. We need to recognize (the union) for the remainder of the contract. We will definitely adhere to the conditions of the court.”

Marty Nix, president of PACT, on Thursday interpreted Fox’s ruling as a victory for the union.

“This is excellent,” Nix said, as she began to read through the document for the first time, just minutes before the start of the Thursday board meeting. “I am ready to go back to the table and get this contract finalized so the district can go forward.”

The school board has the authority to terminate its professional negotiating agreement with PACT if it is in compliance with these statutory requirements, Jay Bequette, attorney for the PCSSD, told the board at an emergency meeting Thursday night that had been called to determine the next steps in the search for a new superintendent.

Bequette said that the board had the option of immediately setting a date by which union recognition would be terminated that would give the board time to establish the policies and committee required by state law.

The board has approved the creation of a personnel-policy committee and it’s now up to the teachers to decide on their representation on that committee. The committee would then recommend personnel policies to the board.

Board member Gwen Williams, who had voted against union decertification, said that such action would be bad for the district.

“We are already in disarray…we are already in turmoil,” Williams said. “We look like fools in the papers. We put the cart before the horse.”

Board member Charlie Wood, who initiated the decertification action in December, indicated he was eager to do so again, but at another time.

“If and only if four members want to pursue this avenue, we have the legal recourse,” Wood said. “The judge has pretty much given us his blessings…I don’t think we can do that tonight. That was not the point of this meeting.”

Asked after the meeting when he might want to take up the issue, Wood replied, “Tomorrow.”

Clark, who also voted in December for decertification, said after the meeting he favored decertification, but did not want to set a definite timeline until the board could meet to discuss it.

Although the board voted in December to end the district’s relationship with the union, the teachers’ contract in effect at that time remains valid until a new one is negotiated.

Interim Superintendent Rob McGill said that the district administration was already working on policies so that a personnel committee could be established.

The districts in Arkansas in which teachers have union representation are in the minority. Most districts have personnel policy committees made up of elected teacher representatives as well as administrators.

After Nix heard what Bequette told the board, she said, “I am not going to address Mr. Bequette’s stuff. I want to check with our attorney. I don’t necessarily agree with his interpretation.”

Nix maintained that the board cannot decertify the union as long as the existing contract is in place and a successor agreement has not been negotiated.

“The contract has a recognition clause that allows PACT to negotiate on behalf of teachers as long as membership remains 50 percent plus one (member),” Nix said.

Nix said according to most recent estimates, about 920 PCSSD teachers out of about 1,200 are union members.

Fox also ruled that the teachers who walked out on Dec. 10 in objection to the decertification had indeed engaged in a strike, but that “no reprisal would be taken against any teacher for participating in the strike.”

The ruling stated that there is no state law or state Supreme Court ruling “on whether public employee strikes in Arkansas are legal or illegal, and the issue is accordingly, one of first impression.” Therefore, the teachers’ own contract, which specified that there would be no reprisals for a strike, and the rights enjoyed by nonpublic employees applied, Fox concluded.

Nix said she disagreed with Fox’s ruling that the walkout was a strike, claiming that the teachers actually took “accrued leave” as allowed by their contract and deserved to be paid.

“Those teachers were out on contractual leave; they didn’t walk out on their children,” Nix said. “It is leave guaranteed them.

We were charged leave without pay. The district changed the official leave forms they turned in.”

Nix she did not know if PACT would appeal that decision.

“I don’t know. I am looking at this as a great day.”

The union in December had ratified the tentative contract agreement reached by chief negotiators for the union and district administration.

Teachers went to the emergency board meeting on Dec. 8 with the expectation that the board would ratify the agreement.

When that did not occur, tempers flared. Wood saw his opportunity to get a majority on his motion to decertify, which had failed previously.

“I struck when the iron was hot,” he said recently, recalling that night. Clark, who had for months not been supportive of decertification, this time cast the swing vote.