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Charlottesville teachers, school staff seek to unionize

More than four-fifths of Charlottesville City teachers are ready to form a union.

Organizers with the Charlottesville Education Association presented a resolution Thursday to the city School Board that would give employees the ability to collectively bargain a contract that would cover wages, hours and other work conditions. So far, 85% of licensed teachers have signed union authorization cards along with 57% of education support professionals, which includes instructional assistants, school nurses and custodians.

Jessica Taylor, a teacher at Clark Elementary and president of CEA, said the association has the highest percentage in the state of licensed educators on board.

“People are ready,” she said. “They want this.”

By forming a union, educators are hoping to secure higher wages, guaranteed planning time and a role in decisions make regarding what happens in the classroom. Although the pandemic has worsened teachers’ workload and increased their burnout, CEA organizers said that the pressures of the past two years are not new.

Planning time is not guaranteed for teachers at the elementary level, Taylor said. At Clark, she has five planning periods a week. However, three of those are taken up by meetings.

“There are three days a week that we have 20 minutes for lunch, and that’s the only time we’re not actively with students or in a meeting from 7:40 until 2:30,” she said. “… That doesn’t leave any time then for preparing for the next day or preparing for the next week.”

Charlottesville City employees are the latest in the area to seek the right to unionize. Albemarle educators presented their petition last month. 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 Charlottesville School Board will have 120 days from Thursday to respond to the proposed resolution. The board doesn’t have to grant its permission; however, many board members have voiced support for a teachers’ union in recent months.

In fact, at a School Board meeting in January, Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. invited Taylor up to the podium to talk about collective bargaining with board members.

“I’m probably maybe the only superintendent standing up right now talking about collective bargaining, but I do feel that I don’t want this to be something that we are running away from,” Gurley said at that meeting. “I do think that we can have this conversation together.”

Organizers are hoping to have a resolution adopted by the end of the current school year and before educators depart for summer break.

“This collective bargaining will guarantee that our voices are heard and that we are at the table actively trying to get what’s best for our students,” said Rae Regan, a reading specialist at Walker Upper Elementary School.

Regan, who spearheaded the organizing campaign with teacher David Koenig, said teachers are “overworked and exhausted ” and that she believes that collective bargaining can help to address the burnout and expected exodus of educators at the end of the school year.

“People are saying I want [collective bargaining] because I want to be heard,” said Koenig, a teacher with Lugo-McGinness Academy. “I want us to have a voice in what our schools are like and how they’re run and what happens in our classrooms.”

At the meeting, Koenig proposed that the School Board and CEA form a task force to work on the specific language in the resolution.

Charlottesville City Schools does not provide regular updates on staff retirements and resignations, but nationally, more teachers than usual are expected to leave the profession this year.

A survey from the National Education Association in February found that 55% of educators are planning to leave teaching earlier than planned. In August 2021, 37% of those surveyed said they would quit or retire earlier than planned.

Taylor said she thinks that collective bargaining could show stressed employees that there’s a way out.

“By working together, we could make our working conditions and the students’ learning conditions the best that could be, even in really difficult times,” Taylor said. “… We will be there to speak collectively for what we need to make everything better for kids, which is ultimately what both sides want.”

The proposed resolution could allow CEA — a local chapter of the statewide Virginia Education Association — to negotiate over a range of topics and issues, from curriculum to discipline. Under the resolution, there would be at least three bargaining groups for employees: licensed personnel, education support professionals and administrative personnel.

During the last weeks of March, CEA started collecting signed union authorization cards from employees, which allow the education association to represent them in negotiations concerning wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, according to a news release.

Taylor said CEA has the highest percentage in the state of licensed educators on board.

Salary and wages are a big issue for employees, Taylor said. For example, many instructional assistants, who are hourly employees, have to work two jobs, she said, though she didn’t provide a specific percentage. Instructional assistants start at $21,788 a year for a 200-day contract and receive benefits.

In the 2020-21 school year, the average salary for Charlottesville teachers is $64,543, according to state data. Statewide, the average is $61,692.

Shannon Gillikin, a Charlottesville teacher, said during public comment at Thursday’s meeting 100% of the education support professionals at Jackson-Via Elementary, where she works, signed cards.

“Traditionally, this group is overlooked, underpaid and their input is undervalued,” she said. “But by authorizing collective bargaining, you have an opportunity to change that.”

Regan said the main priority overall is making sure that teachers are included in the decision-making process and on different committees.

“Charlottesville preaches this culture of care, and we preach equity, but I haven’t found a teacher right now who feels like we’re cared about,” Regan said.

Employees’ concerns don’t just stem from the pandemic, she said.

“A phrase I keep hearing is we’re asked to do more and more with less,” she said. “So they ask us to do something, and then they don’t take anything off the plate.”

By seeking to collectively bargain, Regan said the teachers and other school employees are trying to do what they see as the right thing.

“I hope that people understand that we’re not trying to be the bad guys here,” Regan said, adding that they want what’s best for students. “When this happens, you are going to see great gains in the classroom because teachers are going to be freed up to actually do their job. “This has always been about the students.”

No one spoke publicly during the first part of the meeting against the union effort.

Near the end of Thursday’s meeting, board member Jennifer McKeever said she supported creating the task force.

“I’m not sure what the next step in this process is, but that’s the only way forward at this point,” she said. “I just don’t think that we need to be wasting time.”

She said the board has the ability to get a resolution before them in six to eight weeks.

I just want to make sure that before we leave here tonight that we actually have a next step, so that we can be bargaining in good faith with the staff,” she said. “They’ve come together with 85%. That’s a very significant number.”

Board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres thanked the CEA for their work

As far as collective bargaining, thank you for the work you have done. Haven’t had time to look and see what you gave us.

“We all are committed to a path forward and trying to figure that out and I don’t think I have answers, or that we have answers. … I think we need to talk some more about that,” she said.


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