Jefferson Parish School Board rejects teacher union contract

A deeply divided Jefferson Parish School Board voted 5-3 vote late Tuesday against approving a new collective bargaining agreement with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers.

Board members Larry Dale, Mike Delesdernier, Mark Jacobs, Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge, and Pat Tovrea voted against the agreement.

Etta Licciardi, Ray St. Pierre, and Mark Morgan voted to approve the agreement. Cedric Floyd abstained.

As co-authors of the motion to approve the agreement, Licciardi and St. Pierre unsuccessfully attempted to defer a vote once it appeared headed for defeat.

During the lengthy and passionate public comment section, the comments in support of the agreement outweighed those against, but both sides were well represented.

The union has been without a collective bargaining agreement since the board voted to let it expire last June.

Teachers begged the board for respect, security, and a voice, while others argued that approving the agreement would hinder the current positive progress of the district.

Before the meeting, teacher Vanessa Smith said that this year, the first year with individual contracts and without a collective bargaining agreement in more than 30 years, was different.

“It’s different because the principals have the authority to do as they please and the teachers felt like they didn’t have a leg to stand on, and didn’t have a voice,” Smith said.

Smith said morale has been low among teachers in the district, especially with the multitude of new programs implemented over the past several years.

“There’s lots of turnover,” teacher Lisa Lotten said. “Everyone is looking for security.”

Aside from one woman who identified herself as a teacher, the people who argued against the agreement were overwhelming from the business community.

Among them, a common theme was that significant progress has been made in recent years coupled with a recommendation to stay the course.

However Morgan and Licciardi pointed out that results from the 2012-2013 year — the only year without an agreement, have yet to be determined, and that the progress referred to by many of those opposing the collective bargaining agreement occurred while it was in place.

Dale, the School Board’s president, said he had asked that the union not go forward with taking the agreement to the teachers for ratification but that they did anyway in March.

Superintendent James Meza said the direction to the negotiating team, which met 20 times last winter, was to start completely over in creating a new contract.

“That’s not a new document,” Meza said. Raisiing his voice, he said that of 2,075 lines, 1,812 were the same as the previous contract.

“It bothers me greatly no effort was made to transform the contract that I was willing to support to the fullest extent,” Meza said. “I’m not going to recommend the same document. I didn’t even get the darn thing until after you voted on it,” he said, directing his comments to the union staff.

The most heated yelling matches took place between Meza and Floyd — at one point prompting the board to call a recess.

Morgan expressed a concern for a worst-case scenario —a strike —and said he feared that would bring out the worst in what a union can be, not the best in what a union can be.

“My question is where did negotiations break down?” Morgan asked. “It’s time to lay the cards on the table. We are either going to do it or not do it. I don’t want to play the game anymore.”

Susan Merriman, secretary for the JFT, said that she had heard it said in the public sphere that the new members on the board were specifically elected to “get rid of us,” and that they never intended to negotiate a new contract. “If that’s true just say it—instead of continuing this emotional rollercoaster,” she said.

However Dale said that he fully intended to have a new contract, but that negotiations had not yet reached a point where the contract was ready for approval.

Meza said it was the union that pulled out of negotiations.

JFT President Meladie Munch said she felt the negotations had wrapped up in good faith in December.

Without a contract, said educator Betty Bordelon while addressing the board, “There is uncertainty, and energy draining strife that feeds on the fear of the unknown.”