Press "Enter" to skip to content

Albemarle County teachers win collective bargaining rights

The Albemarle County School Board unanimously passed a resolution Thursday night granting 2,600 of the school division’s teachers, faculty and staff the right to collective bargaining.

Albemarle County Public Schools joins eight other Virginia school divisions, including its next-door neighbor Charlottesville City Schools, that have adopted collective bargaining resolutions since 2021, when the General Assembly reversed the Virginia Supreme Court decision that outlawed the public sector unions in 1977.

“Collective bargaining is the best system this country has figured out in order to get workers in education to feel valued and to reach their highest potential and that, in turn, helps create the best possible conditions for our students’ learning and growth,” said Tim Klobuchar, a teacher at Monticello High School, told the school board during a public-comment period ahead of the vote. “It’s not a coincidence that the strongest performing states in K-12 education also happen to have strong collective bargaining practices in their schools.”

The school board’s 7-0 decision was met with thunderous applause from the roughly 60 school employees and their supporters in Lane Auditorium at the Albemarle County Office Building, all of them sporting the Albemarle Education Association union’s trademark red T-shirts. The crowd continued to celebrate outside the auditorium with hugs, laughter and exclamations of “I never thought this day would finally come.”

And it almost never did. The Albemarle Education Association began its campaign back in 2021 to advocate for better pay, benefits and working conditions for the county’s school workers.

The school board voted down a collective bargaining resolution in 2022 when it was brought up for a vote. Board members said at the time they had concerns about the new state law, claiming it did not provide enough guidance to local governments regarding the necessary processes and infrastructure for collective bargaining.

The Albemarle teachers union continued to lobby for their cause, eventually getting the county school board to agree to come to the table last year.

In September, though, union negotiators walked out of a meeting with school division representatives. The union suspended discussions after nine weeks of negotiating with the school division saying it was tired of the “long line of broken promises.” The two parties were unable to find common ground on several issues, including the threshold for election participation, union authorization cards as well as which employees would be included in collective bargaining.

Talks resumed in October after what the school division described as “productive discussion.”

“Even a few months ago, we didn’t know if we would reach this day,” Mary McIntyre, vice president of the Albemarle Education Association and a reading specialist at Journey Middle School, told The Daily Progress after the vote. “To have it be here finally and have it be unanimous is a huge victory, but it also is underscoring the fact that this was the right thing to do. We did this the right way. We made good smart decisions along the way that helped us come to a fair resolution.”

Members of the union consider the resolution to be “one of the strongest in the state,” which closely resembles the one adopted by neighboring Charlottesville City Schools last March. The resolution creates two bargaining units for licensed instructional staff and education support professionals, which will represent 91% of the division’s 2,800 employees, school division counsel Josiah Black told the school board Thursday night.

Black also pointed out another key provision included in the resolution: a “no strike, no lockout” clause. Representatives of both the union and school board agreed to prioritize students’ needs in the event the two parties reach an impasse when negotiating contracts.

“Both sides agree that the most important thing that any of us do is serve the students in our school division,” said Black. “So we’re all on the same page: that it’s important to make sure that schools stay open, kids keep going to classes, whatever our disagreements may be, our focus is on that.”

Allison Spillman, the at-large representative on the school board who made collective bargaining a key plank in her policy platform in her successful campaign last year, took a moment before casting her vote in favor of the resolution to thank all of the division’s employees, calling them “heroes,” especially those who teach her five children in public schools.

“I am grateful every single day for everything that you do for my kids and for the kids in our division,” said Spillman. “It’s an honor for me to be up here and get an opportunity to vote on this, and I’m just really excited that our board and the AEA and the teachers could come to this point and that we’re finally here after a really long time.”

Union members said the vote was a much-needed win for school employees after a tumultuous few years, from the pandemic that forced schoolhouses across the country to close and forced students into online instruction to the ongoing culture wars as legislators, parents and educators debate what behaviors, lessons and policies should be allowed in classrooms.

“Morale has been really, really low for the past few years,” said McIntyre. “I think that this is one way that the county can try to address that, to say, ‘We do hear you. We are trying to meet your needs.’ Because so far, it hasn’t turned anything around.”

While collective bargaining has more of a direct impact on union members, it also benefits everyone affiliated with the schools, said Liz Koenig, the Albemarle union’s secretary and a preschool teacher at Agnor Elementary School.

“It’s the students who benefit from having people stay here in this division and not having a brand new teacher every single year,” Koenig told The Daily Progress. “Students benefit from having people who are a career educator and who are here for the long haul, not just a teacher for two or three years and then they quit. Schools at their heart are communities.”

Thursday night’s vote was just the first step forward on the path toward collective bargaining for the Albemarle Education Association. In order to be recognized as the organization representing the two bargaining units, the union must acquire signatures from at least half of the employees in each unit. Then, the petition will go to the school board, which will hold a “secret election,” meaning all participants and how they vote remain anonymous. To win the election, the union is required to get at least 33% of the employees in a bargaining unit to vote and, then, receive a majority of those votes.

The resolution passed Thursday says that nine days after the election results are revealed, the parties will meet to begin discussing some of the matters that school employees seek to address in their contracts. While union members are limited to only four topics for the first contract, the resolution allows them unlimited items to bargain over for all future contracts. A deadline has been set for Oct. 1, when the terms and conditions of the contract will be determined “so that we can begin the process of seeking the funding necessary to support that,” said Black.

The union has not identified which matters will be discussed in the first round of contract negotiations, but McIntyre said their priorities are “really reasonable” and include better pay for hourly staff, more planning time for teachers and restrictions on extra duties added to teachers’ workloads.

“We’re not asking for these pie-in-the-sky things that are going to bankrupt the school division,” she said. “I think that people will see at the end, when we have our first contract, that all along the things that we’ve been wanting have been things that are just common sense and that will make our job much easier to do, but will also enable the students to have a better quality educational experience.”

The union hopes that these demands will not only increase employee retention in the school division, but also attract outside teachers to the county.

“I think that this organization is the strongest it’s ever been,” said McIntyre. “We’re only growing and getting better at representing the employees of this school division and helping them thrive.”


Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *