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How did the Albemarle teachers union talks fall apart?

Both sides are still sparring in the fight for collective bargaining rights for Albemarle County teachers after last week’s school board meeting.

It’s not clear that the board and the union are any closer to returning to the negotiating table after the union walked out of talks earlier this month accusing the school division of “broken promises.”

What is more clear after last week’s meeting is what factors led to that walkout, namely that the teachers union believes the school board is attempting to incorporate a number of “poison pill provisions” in the collective bargaining agreement that would effectively render it useless.

“We are all here because we need collective bargaining rights, actual collective bargaining rights,” Vernon Liechti, union president and a teacher at Albemarle High School, said Thursday as he rallied dozens of union supporters on the steps of the Albemarle County Office Building moments before the meeting. “We are not here to sign something that is pretend bargaining rights. We are here because the board knows what we are asking for. They know everything that we in particular need to have to make sure we remain in Albemarle County Public Schools.”

Another in attendance Thursday went a step further than “pretend.”

Democratic Del. Sally Hudson represents parts of Albemarle County in Richmond. In 2020, she voted in favor of the bill eventually signed into law legalizing collective bargaining for public-sector employees in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Hudson said the terms the Albemarle County School Board presented to its union would be unlawful under the terms passed by the House in 2020.

“The draft arguments that you’ve currently presented would be illegal under the standards that were passed by the House in 2020,” Hudson told the school board during public comment Thursday.

Hudson also apologized to both parties seeing as how the General Assembly has “put them in this position,” deferring to localities to hash out the details of collective bargaining.

There were two bills floating through chambers back in 2020, a House bill and a Senate bill, with a “disagreement” over the amount of guidance to provide regarding the collective bargaining process, according to Hudson.

“The House at the time passed a much more robust bill that I voted for that created a lot of support and guidelines for localities about what a fair bargaining process should look like,” Hudson told The Daily Progress. “The Senate basically gutted that bill and passed a very skinny version that allowed localities to permit collective bargaining but provided zero guidance about how it should go.”

How it is going is not well, and both sides in Albemarle County agree on that.

The negotiations had been progressing for some time before coming to an abrupt halt, according to a statement issued by school board Chair Judy Le ahead of Thursday’s meeting. An agreement was reached on about 70 different items in the course of their nine-week negotiations, according to that statement. However, those 70 did not include the unions “non-negotiables.”

The union’s decision to suspend talks revolved around a few key matters presented by the board, according to Lechti and Liz Koenig, secretary of the Albemarle union and a preschool teacher at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School. Those matters include:

A high election threshold: The board tried negotiating terms to set the participation threshold to be valid at 66% of voters. Elections are held to find an individual to represent union members in contract negotiations.

Authorization of employee cards: The division refused to recognize authorization cards signed to verify that enough employees agreed to engage in collective bargaining.

Creating negotiation loopholes: The terms presented by the board developed a clause that would allow them to go against contract or enact policies under emergency powers.

Division coverage: Certain employee groups would not be allowed to engage in collective bargaining.

The union has also said it is uncomfortable with the involvement of Superintendent Matthew Haas.

During negotiations, the school division is represented by school board members Jonno Alcaro and Ellen Osborne as well as the division’s attorney Ross Holden. The union is represented by Liechti, Monticello High School teacher Tim Klobuchar, attorney Moriah Allen and a union adviser named Bob Fink.

Haas chairs the negotiations and is a “neutral party” that “takes no sides,” according to school division spokesman Phil Giaramita.

But that’s not entirely true, according to Liechti, who said Haas has been authorized “to write his own resolution for collective bargaining.”

It stands in stark contrast to the drafting process for a collective bargaining agreement in neighboring Charlottesville, one the Albemarle teachers union said it modeled much of its own work on.

Charlottesville City Schools approved its collective bargaining resolution in March.

At the start of that process, Superintendent Royal Gurley expressed the importance of conversations surrounding collective bargaining and invited union leaders to speak with members of the board.

“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 a school board meeting last year. “I do think that we can have this conversation together.”

Gurley did not vote or draft a resolution of his own during negotiations, according to Charlottesville City Schools spokeswoman Amanda Korman.

Haas is trying to do exactly that, Liechti said — and the school division denied.

It’s the teachers union that has broken with protocol, according to the division.

Le and others on the school division’s side recalled the union representatives abruptly walking out of talks on Sept. 7.

Protocols regarding negotiations agreed upon by both the union and school board ahead of time make it clear that items of the draft resolution are to be addressed one by one; if the two sides come to an “impasse” on an item, it is to be revisited later.

“The AEA did not adhere to the negotiation protocol” during the Sept. 7 meeting, according to Le’s statement.

In person on Thursday, Le told The Daily Progress she was “surprised” by the union’s departure.

But union leaders said the school board was warned that the parties had reached an impasse.

“They wanted to act surprised that we did what we did,” Mary McIntyre, vice president of the Albemarle Education Association and a reading specialist at Journey Middle School, told The Daily Progress. “We had warned them we were going to do that ahead of time, and then we did what we said we were going to do. They need to do what they said they were going to do all along which was grant their employees collective bargaining rights not this pretend collective bargaining which is what they’re trying to shove down our throats right now.”

The school board says it is willing and waiting to restart talks. However, “negotiations require the presence of both parties,” Le said in her statement.

“We stand ready to negotiate,” Le said. “The next scheduled negotiation session is scheduled for September 26 with an additional session on October 17.”

But those dates are largely arbitrary, said McIntyre.

It is already too late for collective bargaining rights to be established during this academic year, she said.

“Some of the urgency that they were putting into their press releases and their statements seems false,” McIntyre said. “There is no rush. If we rush and we end up with something bad, then it was a waste.”

McIntyre said she hopes the board realizes the amount of support the union has after the turnout at Thursday’s meeting.

“There’s a much larger group of employees who are mobilized about this than ever before, and it seems like every time they tell us no, more people get mad about that and get involved,” McIntyre said.

She said folks will keep showing up at meetings, but that flooding school board meetings will ultimately not win teachers collective bargaining rights — negotiating in good faith will.

“We will keep coming to meetings if we have to, but it’s just really disrespectful of them to expect us to do that,” McIntyre said. “We work all day long in our schools and then for them to expect us to spend our time and energy away from our family and on a work night to come here just to sit and tell them all the things we’ve already told them that’s just disrespectful.”

The school board needs to understand that the union will “never” accept a resolution that doesn’t include some compromise on the aforementioned impasse items, she said.

“In order for us to go back to negotiations, we have to know from the school board that they do truly intend to compromise with us on those issues. We will never accept the resolution with the items that we mentioned in it. Our members won’t accept that, and they all deserve better than that.”

In the meantime, teachers say they desperately need the resources that a collective bargaining resolution would win them.

“We’ve lost a lot of staff, teachers are feeling overworked and underappreciated,” Amy Gaertner, former Albemarle Education Association president and a teacher at Broadus Wood Elementary School, told The Daily Progress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has left children unsocialized leading to “atypical behaviors,” and some teachers are having trouble managing, according to Gaertner.

One solution she offers is something the union has been dreaming of.

“Collective bargaining will give us the training that we need, but also the support staff that we also need,” Gaertner said. “We don’t have those skills or as teachers the time to meet those needs.”


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