Teachers union, board at odds

More than 500 teachers packed the Jefferson Federation of Teachers meeting Tuesday evening, voting unanimously to ratify a three-year tentative collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson Parish School Board.

But according to School Superintendent James Meza, the union’s vote took place before any agreement was reached by his office, the board or the negotiating team.

According to JFT President Meladie Munch, the union has been negotiating with the administration’s team for the past nine months, and the negotiations reached a point of “finalizing the basics” in December, prior to some fine-tuning over the past few months.

The School Board sent the following statement out just hours before Tuesday’s meeting: “The Jefferson Parish School Board and the district’s administration have not agreed, tentatively or otherwise, to a collective bargaining agreement. The Jefferson Federation of Teachers has acted unilaterally in its presentation of a draft to its members. The draft presented does not represent the views of the school district’s administration or the Jefferson Parish School Board.”

Meza said the draft voted on by teachers Tuesday was not endorsed by the negotiating team, the School Board or him. The negotiating team doesn’t have authority to sign off on it, he said.

Meza said he did not receive a copy of the proposed contract directly from the union and does not know why the union went forward with what he described as incomplete document.

Munch said she hopes the board will move forward on the contract, as the board has completed agreements with principals, Meza and new charter schools. “Now it is time to complete this task,” she said.

The 3,300 educators in the parish — two-thirds of whom belong to the union — have been working without a contract since last June, when five board members voted to let the contract expire. It had been in place since the mid-1970s

The five members who voted to let the contact lapse were Mark Jacobs, Michael Delesdernier, Larry Dale, Pat Tovrea and Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge.

The board then began offering individual contracts, a move criticized by some as an attempt to edge out the union.

Following the June meeting, angry teachers shouted at the five board members and Meza and tried to prevent them from leaving the parking lot. Sheriff’s deputies were on hand, and the six left the scene without incident.

Dale said there was no way to keep the same contract in light of new education reforms at the state level.

The administration’s negotiating team includes JPPSS Chief of Staff Mary Garton, Compliance Officer Gretchen Williams and former Deputy Superintendent Richard Carpenter, who retired at the end of January. The union appointed its 11-member executive committee to negotiate on behalf of the educators.

Mary Garton, chief of staff and part of the negotiating team, said the conversations are “active and ongoing.” There are still issues with the draft that need to be addressed from the school system’s perspective, Garton said. “It’s not final,” she said. The decision to take it to a vote to the teachers was entirely made on the union’s end, she said.

Garton declined to comment on specific issues because she said the agreement between the two sides was not to negotiate in public.

Dale, who is now board president, said that he received a copy of the contract Friday evening, and it did not appear to address issues as requested by the board.

In drafting a new contract, the board requested that the two sides start from scratch, with the foundational statement ensuring that everything is measured against student achievement.

“We have to put students first,” Dale said. “You can’t put adult issues first. We have to weigh everything we do against student achievement.”

However Dale said the copy of the contract he looked at over the weekend did not appear to reflect that foundation and did not seem to differ very much from the prior contract.

Munch said the new contract is an entirely new document and is in accordance with the new state laws. She said it is about one third the size of the previous document and starts with a student-focused philosophical statement as directed by the board.

Dale said there were three other things he wants to see in a new contract: a protocol to go through before taking disagreements to litigation; clear authority for principals; and a procedure to address teachers who haven’t been placed in teaching positions but are still being paid.

In terms of anything related to the contract being on the board’s agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, Meza said that was up to the board. “It’s still in the middle of negotiations — things need to get clarified,” he said. Meza added that it has not been decided at this point whether collective bargaining will be honored at all. He said he feels the union misled the teachers and misled the public regarding the status of the negotiations.

Munch said the union made its time line known and “moved along in good faith. If the administration and board have questions—they have every right to ask,” she said.

However Meza, Dale and Garton all said they did not agree that the negotiations had reached a point at which a new agreement was ready to be voted on by the board, or a point where the board was satisfied that its concerns had been adequately addressed.

Munch said she would like to see the contract approved before testing, thus energizing the teachers and letting them end the year “with a good feeling.”

“They put their trust in us as a leadership team and trust in the board, which said it would negotiate,” Munch said. “I believe the board will do the right thing and renew the collective bargaining agreement.”