More than two-thirds of Albemarle County educators want to form a union and start negotiating with the school division regarding wages, hours and other working conditions.
The Albemarle Education Association submitted a 17-page resolution to the School Board on Thursday outlining which employees would be included in collective bargaining and related processes. The group, which is part of the Virginia Education Association, would likely represent teachers during contract negotiations or collective bargaining. The proposed resolution would give all eligible employees in the school division collective bargaining rights.
Educators and community members in support of the resolution said during public comment at Thursday’s meeting that they thought collective bargaining would help better recruit and retain employees. School systems nationally have been bracing for a mass exodus of teachers at the end of this school year. Speakers also spoke about the need to increase teacher salaries. The average pay for Albemarle teachers was $57,775 in the 2020-21 school year, according to state data. The state average is $61,692.
“This year’s attrition rates will be high,” said Liz Koenig, a teacher at Woodbrook Elementary School. “Turn the tide by welcoming us to the bargaining table and help us make teaching a sustainable career again.”
Last year, the school division retained about 87.4% of its teaching corps and 76.5% of classified staff, the lowest rate in the last five years. Currently resignation and retirement rates are not higher than a typical school year, according to board documents.
In December, Richmond Public Schools teachers became the first in the state to gain collective bargaining rights since a state law changed last May to allow public sector employees to unionize. The Richmond school system is currently working to certify which organization will represent employees in negotiations.
The School Board has 120 days to respond to AEA’s proposed resolution under state law. The board has not publicly discussed the new state law in the last year. The board does not have to approve a resolution by the July 22 deadline.
However, speakers at Thursday’s meeting urged the board to move quickly to adopt a resolution.
“More and more each day our education system is appearing to be on the brink of exhaustion,” said Margot Diaz, an Albemarle parent. “A logical next step to ensuring quality education for all of our children is advocating for the empowerment of teachers and all the school staff, all the people who make our schools great in so many ways.”
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, said at the meeting that she supported the resolution.
“We all know that our school districts will be stronger when all of our staff, and educators have a meaningful voice on the job,” she said. “Collective bargaining is not just about compensation, but scheduling, professional development, safety and all of the things that make our schools tick.”
The Albemarle Education Association has been working for months to gather support among employees. In early February, AEA started collecting signed union authorization cards in which employees allow the education association to represent them in collective bargaining.
Vernon Liechti, president of Albemarle Education Association, said more than 69% of licensed educators on the county payroll have signed cards. About 70% of transportation staff and 80% of school nurses also have signed cards. The group is continuing to collect cards.
The resolution lists at least three bargaining groups for employees: licensed personnel, school support professionals and administrative personnel.
Licensed personnel means any non-administrative employee whose school employment requires a license from the Virginia Board of Education or Virginia Board of Health such as teachers and school counselors. The administrative unit would cover principals, assistant principals and other supervisors. The third group — school support professionals — would include school nurses, custodians and other employees not in the first two groups.
The proposed document means that the School Board wouldn’t have to approve a resolution for other employee groups if they want to unionize.
Koenig, the Woodbrook teacher, said collective bargaining should extend to all school staff.
“Every adult that works in the school becomes an educator whether it’s in their title or not,” she said.
Liechti said a top priority he’s hearing from employees is the need to have a voice in the decisions affecting their jobs, such as in class sizes and scheduling, among other areas.
He’s hoping that the School Board will act quickly to adopt a resolution, especially since contracts for employees will be released in the next few months. He said he thinks collective bargaining will give the educators a way to share what they need in order to say on the job and why employees are leaving the school system or profession.
“Because right now so many people leaving the profession isn’t helping anybody,” he said. “Jobs are a lot tougher for everybody and the children are impacted the most. So we want to make sure we’re having that chance to work together to kind of help the division.”
So far, Liechti said AEA has received a lot of support from employees and the community at large.
“We’re trying to make everybody’s working conditions better, which helps the students’ learning conditions,” he said.