The Albemarle County School Board voted down a proposed resolution from teachers that would have allowed most division employees to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement — dealing a blow to the current unionization effort, though next steps are unclear.
Board members said the state law allowing collective bargaining does not provide enough guidance about how the process would work or the necessary infrastructure. They also were concerned about the resources required for collective bargaining and wanted to see how school divisions go about collective bargaining before taking next steps, members said.
“Rather than focusing on our students, which is my highest priority at this time, I fear a significant amount of time and resources would be devoted to developing the collective bargaining infrastructure that the General Assembly failed to do,” board member Kate Acuff said.
The change in state law that allowed local governments to recognize labor unions and enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employees didn’t provide many specifics about how the process should work or spell out which group of employees could be included.
Acuff said the state statue is “unworkingably vague.”
"Additionally, as is often the case with new and poorly drafted legislation, the first adopters are also likely to be embroiled in litigation and other challenges — detracting from both our students and any meaningful efforts to support staff needs," she said.
Board member Jonno Alcaro made the motion to reject AEA’s resolution, which Acuff seconded. The motion passed with a vote of 4-2. Board members Katrina Callsen and Ellen Osbourne also voted to reject the resolution, saying they also had similar concerns with the state law.
Board member David Oberg, who represents the White Hall district, did not attend Thursday’s meeting.
Albemarle Education Association president Vernon Liechti said he wanted to know when the board will be comfortable passing a resolution. In the meantime, the AEA will reorganize and figure out next steps.
“We will continue to ensure that workers across the county are treated fairly by the division,” Liechti said. “If the board chooses to neglect their responsibility to support students and those that educate them, then it is up to the ACPs workers to support each other and their students.”
In March, the Albemarle Education Association kicked off the collective bargaining process as outlined in state law when it submitted a resolution to the school board for consideration.
AEA representatives and teachers have said they hope to gain higher wages through collective bargaining as well as a voice in the decision-making process, among other goals. Many teachers, parents and community members have spoken out in support at recent board meetings. So far, no one has publicly opposed granting county schools employees the right to collective bargaining.
“I do not want to fill out another survey,” said Amy Gaertner, a county teacher. “We want an invitation to sit down at the table and have a conversation. I want to talk about the support we need to do our jobs well to take care of our health and our families.”
Thursday’s meeting was the first time board members have publicly addressed the resolution from the Albemarle Education Association or the change in state law, though the topic has been discussed in closed session, board chairman Graham Paige said.
The Charlottesville School Board decided last week to have the superintendent start working on a resolution. The city school board also has heard a presentation about how collective bargaining could work.
School Board attorney Ross Holden said setting up an office of labor relations and hiring people for contract negotiations would cost about $377,000 to $433,000. Later in the meeting, the board approved a $246 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year.
Callsen and Osborne asked many of the questions during Thursday’s discussion.
Callsen said she talked to lawyers, teachers and other officials before coming to a final decision on whether to support the resolution.
“I don’t see in the balance of evidence why it needs to happen right now when there’s all these uncertainties,” she said.
She added that she believed in a process of discussing a proposal, communicating and coming to a resolution rather than just approving the one AEA presented.
“That would be more the way that I would be comfortable proceeding,” she said.
AEA representatives had suggested such a process but the board never publicly discussed it. Paige declined to comment Thursday night about why this option wasn’t discussed.
Board member Judy Le said the proposed resolution wasn’t perfect, but it was a starting point.
“We could have treated it as such,” she said. “… I believe for the most part, division does deal in good faith. But that to me is not a compelling reason to vote against collective bargaining. A culture of good faith is hard to build and quite easy to dismantle.”
Before the board voted, the student representative Kofi Mason said he supported the teachers.
I feel like the most effective way to make changes to listen to them and not just listen and write messages or visit the schools but actually take action upon what they’re saying," Mason said. "Talk is cheap. I think they deserve a seat at the table."
AEA’s resolution outlined how the process would work and gave all eligible employees in the school division collective bargaining rights. At the time, about 69% of licensed educators on the county payroll had signed union authorization cards along with 70% of transportation employees and 80% of school nurses.
Currently, teachers and other public-sector employees can form a union but before the change in state law, they didn’t have the right to collective bargaining. Under the proposed resolution, the AEA, which is part of the Virginia Education Association, would likely be designated as the bargaining agent during contract negotiations.
On Thursday, teachers and their supporters once again packed Lane Auditorium, wearing red shirts and holding signs to advocate for collective bargaining. Fourteen people spoke during public comment — most of whom supported collective bargaining.
“I’m here tonight to ask you to vote in favor of allowing us to meet with our employer and negotiate the terms that we work under,” said Gayle Burt, a school nurse at Red Hill Elementary.
Burt pointed that among the employee groups, school nurses had the highest level of support for collective bargaining. This week is currently National Nurses Week, and the school division celebrated school nurses on Wednesday, which was National School Nurse Day.
“I asked you to back up your words with action and voted in favor of this resolution,” Burt said.
Maddox McIntyre, a freshman at the Community Lab School, urged the school board to support her teachers.
“A vote no is a vote focused on power and money,” she said.
Liechti said after the vote that the board has many opportunities to work with association on the resolution.
“They have chosen not to do this,” he said. “… The board’s actions tonight matter. Over 1,400 workers of Albemarle County Public Schools signed authorization cards. The school board today has ignored their concerns.”
Following their vote against the resolution, the School Board did unanimously vote to direct schools Superintendent Matthew Haas to investigate alternatives to collective bargaining and provide the board with a report due back in 90 days.