As the nation celebrates Labor Day, recognizing the hard-won rights of American unions, two unions in Charlottesville and Albemarle County are still working to cobble together a future.
The law allowing teachers to unionize in Virginia passed in 2020 and went into effect in 2021. There are only a few participating unions so far in the commonwealth, but plenty are trying to organize.
The Albemarle Education Association is one of them.
“We can make this happen together,” Vernon Liechti, president of the Albemarle County teachers union and a teacher at Albemarle High School, told The Daily Progress. “I know that the community has really heavily supported all the workers of Albemarle County Public Schools trying to get the ability to negotiate, because they know how important it is to make sure that we have a workforce that wants to be here, knows that they’re being listened to, and has a seat at the table.”
The association and county school division are still negotiating a draft collective bargaining agreement, a process which started more than six months ago.
Meanwhile, the Charlottesville Education Association won collective bargaining rights in March of this year — making it among the first teachers unions in Virginia.
As part of its agreement, the city’s teacher union is allowed to choose two topics to negotiate from a list including wages, benefits, discipline procedures and health and safety conditions. For now, those priorities are being kept “close to our chest,” union President Shannon Gillikin told The Daily Progress earlier this summer. But she said she is particularly excited for stronger contracts for education support professionals including assistants, nutrition workers and custodians.
“They’re currently making plans with employees to proceed this fall,” Charlottesville City Schools spokeswoman Amanda Korman told The Daily Progress in a more recent email.
Elections for employee representation in the Charlottesville teachers union is the next step, according to Korman. Those will be held electronically in October.
While not the smoothest process, Charlottesville’s teachers union has had a much better go of it than Albemarle’s.
Last year, the county’s school board made a motion to reject the union’s collective bargaining resolution. The board’s reservations were due to the lack of research and guidance from the state, it said. Some members said they were also concerned about the resources needed to support the resolution at that time.
Earlier this year, the union went back before the school board with a new resolution. This time, the language used borrowed heavily from the more-successful city resolution.
“The resolution we sent to the school board in February is very closely modeled off of Charlottesville City Schools resolution that they approved,” Liechti said, “but at the end of the day we are in competition with the city schools so we also made it stronger as well to include other groups that city may not have offered.”
Since the latest go-around, the county school district has agreed to collaborate with the teachers union on a collective bargaining agreement and school board members have said they are not opposed to adopting one.
The board’s resolution is “in the process” of being drafted with details about how the unit is determined and what topics it will contain, said Phil Giaramita, Albemarle County Public Schools spokesman.
Negotiations are confidential, and the superintendent, Matthew Haas, serves as an intermediary between the negotiating parties, Giaramita said. Haas has no stance on the decisions being made, he said.
“The negotiations are not a comparison of the two resolutions submitted by AEA [Albemarle Education Association],” Giaramita told The Daily Progress in an email. “They have to do with the School Board’s consideration of the most recent AEA resolution and the School Board’s priorities for what should be included in a collective bargaining agreement.”
There is no deadline for when both parties need to come to an agreement, said Giaramita.
Liechti maintains that what the county union wants is no king’s ransom or unusual list of particular demands.
“We want to make Virginia very similar to other states that have offered collective bargaining to their private sector workers, so this is just putting us to be more normalized as the rest of the country is,” Liechti said.
One of the biggest fights for the union is having “enforceable” contracts for employees, Liechti said.
“On some of our contracts a clause gets added that says ‘and all other duties as necessary,’ which is very open-ended and leaves things up to interpretation about what are the roles and responsibilities or the particular times you need to be available,” he said. “So a big thing that we pushed for in our resolution for bargaining is to make sure that all the employee groups in Albemarle County Public Schools have the right to come together to be able to engage in contract negotiation because certain groups are going to need different things.”
The union also wants staff shortages within the division to be addressed, according to Liechti.
“If there is a shortage, we want to make sure we can get people that want to come to the division and want to stay in the division, and having the ability to negotiate what goes in your contract is a big incentive for a lot of people,” Liechti said.
Albemarle County has been luckier than most when it comes to staffing.
There were about 215 teachers hired in Albemarle County in the past year, bringing the total to roughly 1,400, according to Giaramita. The hiring tally was a little higher than the division had last year.
Moreover, Albemarle County has a fully staffed special education department, which many school divisions around the world struggle to fill. More than 70% of U.S. schools reported difficulties staffing special education positions in the 2022-2023 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“We have not seen any serious consequences from the continuing national teacher shortage,” Giaramita said.
The division has about 23 teaching positions open. Some of those positions include intervention specialist and counselors. The number is not unusual during this time of year, according to county staff.
When asked, teachers have said they are largely comfortable with their current class sizes thanks to the adequacy of staffing.
“We were very, very precise with hiring, and the hiring selections we made were really well done,” Nicholas Clark, a fifth-grade teacher at Woodbrook Elementary School, told The Daily Progress. “We used our spaces the most effective way that we could, and our class sizes are really happy to be about 20 or less in a class.”
Haas still anticipates having the positions filled, he told The Daily Progress last month.
“We’re still hiring, we’re not going to stop hiring, still advertising, still recruiting, still seeking the best candidates,” Haas said. “In the meantime, we can use long-term subs, there’s retired teachers that will come back and work for us, and so we keep those covered.”
The most impact the national teacher shortage has had is on the division candidacy pool, according to Giaramita.
The ratio has gone from about 10 applicants applying to one position to about four applicants applying to one position.
Back in the city, Charlottesville City Schools is in need of staff in areas of special education and secondary science, according to Korman.
There are currently about 500 teachers in the division. Roughly 13 positions for classroom teachers are vacant, and there are an additional 10 vacancies in other positions, such as reading specialists, gifted resource teachers and instructional assistants.
The division is continuing to advertise those openings, working with teachers to acquire additional licenses and partnering with higher education institutions. But the more immediate solution is to employ substitutes.
In order to keep numbers stable, Charlottesville City Schools also offers a wide variety of incentives to maintain retention, Korman said.
“The school division covers a large percentage of insurance premiums; we also offer wellness programs, tuition reimbursement; gym discounts; and partnerships with colleges and universities that have teacher-to-administrator pathways and instructional-assistant-to-teacher pathways that we’re supporting,” she wrote in an email.