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Albemarle teachers union calls off collective bargaining talks

The Albemarle County teachers union has suspended talks with the school division over a collective bargaining agreement after fight for a contract for years.

While Albemarle County Public Schools says it was blindsided by union members “abruptly walking out” of long-sought negotiations, members of the Albemarle Education Association say the school division has provided “false promises” and negotiated on terms that were “antithetical” to collective bargaining.

“We need to make sure the public realizes what the school board was offering is literally one of the worst resolutions possible in the state of Virginia right now, and we don’t think the public wants the school board to do that,” Vernon Liechti, the union’s president and a teacher at Albemarle High School, told The Daily progress.

The school board originally rejected the union’s collective bargaining resolution submitted last year, citing inadequate research and guidance on how to proceed with collecting bargaining, seeing as how the General Assembly had only repealed the resolution prohibiting public employee unions in 2020.

After denying the first union resolution last year, the Albemarle school board voted to direct Superintendent Matthew Haas to investigate alternatives to collective bargaining and come back with a report in 90 days.

The report resulted in the Employee Voice and Action Committee, an open-enrollment group consisting of school staff, a professional mediator and up to two school board members. The school board members on the committee change based on who is available at the time. Only school staff are voting members of the committee. The committee can ask for changes and make recommendations but lacks bargaining power.

“Basically a meet-and-confirm process, which allows them to listen, or not listen, to what employees want them to do, but they can always rescind that later,” Liechti said. “We were not the biggest fans of that process, because it’s not a contract.”

The union went back to the school board with a new resolution earlier this year, and the board agreed in March to collaborate with the union on an agreement. The resolution mimicked a “chief rival workforce’s" resolution in hopes to better incentivize candidates, Liechti said.

The rival workforce: neighboring Charlottesville City Schools.

“While they were thinking it over, the school board, instead of adopting our new resolution, which is very closely modeled after Charlottesville City Schools’ resolution — which the city school board did pass — they instead authorized Dr. Haas to write his own resolution for collective bargaining,” Liechti said.

The resolution said to be written by schools Superintendent Matthew Haas didn’t include input from the teachers union, according to Liechti.

Haas chairs the negotiations between the school board and the teachers union, according to school district spokesman Phil Giaramita.

However, Giaramita emphasized, “he is a neutral party in the negotiations, meaning he is not working on a collective bargaining agreement and certainly did not create one. He only is serving as the chair, taking no sides.”

Charlottesville’s teachers became some of the first to win collective bargaining rights in the commonwealth earlier this year. They are allowed to negotiate two topics from a list including wages, benefits, discipline procedures and health and safety conditions.

While the Albemarle Education Association has seen its efforts stall, the Charlottesville Education Association is moving ahead; city teachers are preparing for elections for employee representation later this year.

“When we have that example right next door of what it looks like to have a school board that actually works with their educators, it’s dangerous that they’re going to lose more educators from here,” Liz Koenig, secretary of the Albemarle union and a preschool teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, told The Daily Progress.

The Albemarle teachers union met with the school division’s committee for collective bargaining in August during which the two came to an “impasse,” according to Liechti.

While the negotiations at that meeting were agreed to be confidential, according to Giaramita, Liechti shared at least two “non-negotiable issues” that arose there.

The first issue was the election participation threshold.

The election determines an individual to represent union members in contract negotiations, according to Koenig. The board tried negotiating terms that set the participation threshold for the election to be valid at 66% of voters.

Setting the threshold that high goes against democratic principles, Koenig said.

“It’s not something that we are willing to agree to at all under no circumstances, because it’s obviously set up as a barrier instead of actually trying to get this done,” Koenig said.

Other school divisions in Virginia do not have thresholds similar to what Albemarle was asking for, said Liechti and Koenig.

The second issue was the division refused to recognize authorization cards that were signed to verify that enough people wanted to “engage in the collective bargaining process,” Liechti said.

Liechti said he believes the school division simply doesn’t trust the teachers union.

“Some board members have publicly stated at school board meetings they don’t trust the cards, but that’s what’s frustrating me, because if they don’t trust the cards, why didn’t they take steps to validate them,” Liechti said.

Liechti said the school division could verify the cards by allowing an independent and impartial individual to validate the signatures.

“You did not take the steps to validate them in March of 2022, you did not take steps to validate them in February of 2023, how are we to believe that you will do anything for this next batch?” Liechti asked. “How am I supposed to tell someone that they ignored it the first few times, but this time they’ll change their minds?”

In addition to Liechti’s two non-negotiables, Koenig added two more — one of which is the division’s push to not include certain groups of employees in collective bargaining.

Those groups include “some office associates who they say have access to confidential information — and they [school division] say shouldn’t be a part of bargaining — admins, principals and assistant principals who are a part of our union and have signed cards to support collective bargaining.”

The division also tried “carving out two loopholes for themselves,” according to Koenig.

“If collective bargaining should come to pass, they have this clause that reserves under emergency powers the board could do something that was against the contract or if the board wants to enact a policy then it could go against the contract, which basically invalidates the entire idea of collective bargaining,” Koenig said. “The whole point of a bargain’s contract is that that is the scope of the agreement between the employees and the school board, and they’re trying to carve out this backdoor that’s antithetical to collective bargaining.”

At a Thursday meeting between the negotiating parties, both stood firm and refused to budge ont heir positions, Liechti said.

“When we engaged in our meeting,” he said, “we were told by the representatives of the board that they were still unanimous in their position about that specific election threshold and that they would not recognize the authorization cards we had previously gathered from Albemarle County Public Schools workers and the division.”

Teachers are beginning to worry.

“When I’ve listened to these school board meetings, I’ve heard over and over again how important retention and recruitment is and how this pervasive issue means that we need to keep the most talented staff that already exists in our schools and attract new teachers to fill vacancies, and I’m just worried that without collective bargaining, we’re going lose our ability to do that,” Amanda Vogel, a union member and a reading specialist at Journey Middle School, told The Daily Progress.

The Albemarle Education Association has submitted a statement to the school board suspending negotiations.

The union is tired of the “long line of broken promises” that began when the division decided to negotiate in March, after many supporters and union members showed at that month’s school board meeting, said Koenig.

“They promised to those people there that they supported it and wanted to work with us, and they’re breaking that promise now,” Koenig said. “People didn’t get paid for their summer school bonuses on time, there’s constantly issues with payroll, parents are not getting the bus rides to school that they thought they were going to have when they get their letters over the summer. It’s just a long line of that.”

The negotiators closed their last meeting before the suspension following guidelines and protocols, Liechti said, even shaking hands before departing.

However, Giaramita recalls the union “abruptly walking out.”

“Our reaction as a school division is both disappointing and discouraging that AEA representatives chose to interrupt the negotiation session yesterday afternoon,” Giaramita said.

Liechti said he doesn’t know why the division is “behaving in this manner.” He has reached out to school board members and said he feels as if the board does not want to discuss things publicly with the union.

“I would like to talk with other school board members wondering why they feel they need these particular things in their resolution when it would make us a much worse resolution than what our city counterparts are offering,” Liechti said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

The groups have been making progress, according to Giaramita. There are far more topics which they have agreed upon than not.

The union’s decisions took the division by surprise. Willingness to engage in talks and consider all points of views is the “pathway to success.”

The decision to suspend talks “took us off that pathway,” Giaramita said. “There were no indications ahead of time that this kind of action was planned or contemplated.”

Next steps are in the union’s hands, according to Giaramita.

Liechti encourages the public to attend the upcoming Thursday school board meeting. He said he hopes to give the board a deeper understanding of the union’s needs.

“The point is we’re not going away,” Koenig said. “We’re going to continue to fight for this, and we’re going to continue to fight for it to be done right and respectfully, and so we’ll be there. We’re going to show up. You can’t just stonewall us and expect us to roll over and get tired."


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