Albemarle educators are hoping a new state law giving them the ability to collectively bargain will help balance the demands of the job and improve retention.
“Especially after this year, it’s been a lot of stuff going on that has made the job very difficult and challenging,” said Vernon Liechti, acting president of the Albemarle Education Association. “Ultimately, we all want the same things. We want what’s best for the students. We feel that having teachers that want to work for the county is ultimately beneficial for the students.”
The state law went into effect May 1 and lifts the ban on collective bargaining for some public-sector employees that’s been in place since 1977. Local teachers and school employees can start negotiating a contract after the School Board votes to authorize such talks.
Currently, the Albemarle Education Association is working to educate employees about the process and answer questions through virtual forums, one-on-one conversations and social media. The AEA is part of the statewide Virginia Education Association, which worked to pass the state law.
“I’m very pleased with the progress we’re making,” said Liechti, a government teacher at Albemarle High School. “… It just comes down to letting people know what it is, answering any questions that they have, trying to let them know what we could change or how we make things better for whomever. It’s been going really well so far.”
Teachers and other school employees in the city are represented by the Charlottesville Education Association, which is in a similar phase of the process.
So far, Liechti said the key issues for teachers are small class sizes, compensation for teachers who substitute and more time for planning.
“Through the bargaining process is where we basically have everybody’s attention, and basically let them know that this is what the majority of what your workforce wants,” he said. “This is something that can really help us be better educators that can basically help keep your employees, who ultimately want to do a good job in your school division.”
A contract would provide clarity about the roles and responsibilities for teachers and help with recruitment and retention of employees, he said.
“We want to make sure that teachers are looking out for themselves, that they’re feeling comfortable in their positions, that they feel like they are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and we’d like to have that in writing in the contract so that way we know what we’re signing up for,” he said.
Liechti said AEA representatives feel that everybody wins when teachers have a seat at the table.
“That’s the big thing that I’m telling people,” he said. “We haven’t had that in 30-plus years. This is a big shift and a big change.”
The division does meet with AEA representatives to discuss issues and concerns. During reopening discussions this school year, AEA and division leadership were regularly at odds over whether it was safe to start in-person classes and what measures needed to be in place.
The VEA said earlier this month that it expects the Loudoun Education Association to be the first of its local unions to seek a resolution allowing negotiations. The VEA also is supporting organizing efforts in other local associations.
In an interview, VEA President James Fedderman said the new law has the potential to be a turning point for the state’s schools.
“The process for contract negotiations must be worked out locally in all of them,” he said. “As the VEA, we are laying the groundwork for local resolutions. … Much of our work right now is in talking with community members, educating our own members about contract negotiations and so on. So one thing for sure that we can depend on right now … is the momentum is certainly building.”
The city of Alexandria adopted a collective bargaining ordinance last month for its employees, the first in the state to do. Charlottesville firefighters have said they are planning to unionize.
The AEA hasn’t publicly set a target date for when it wants to seek a vote on the resolution. Additionally, organizers are still exploring which employees to include in a potential bargaining unit. For example, the association could seek to negotiate a contract encompassing all employees — classified and certified staff — or have a more tailored group such as just school bus drivers.
To force a vote on a resolution, the AEA needs the support of a majority — more than 50% — in the bargaining unit. At that point, the School Board has 120 days to vote on a resolution that would outline the parameters for contract negotiations, such as who would be included in the unit.
“Ultimately, we want to make sure every single employee in Albemarle County Public Schools has the right to collectively bargain in their contracts,” Liechti said. “If the School Board passed a resolution tomorrow saying that, that’d be great. That is the ultimate goal that we were pushing for. The timeframe of that we’re not certain about, but ultimately, that’s what I want for every single employee in Albemarle County Public Schools.”