Jefferson school chief: Forget contract

The day after the Jefferson Parish School Board voted to reject a proposed collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union, Superintendent James Meza said he has no plans to reopen negotiations, and doesn’t see a new agreement in the next year — if ever.

Meanwhile, Meladie Munch, who heads the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, held a meeting Wednesday night to address questions and concerns from teachers. She said she hopes to continue to work with the board to resolve the situation. When asked if a strike is an option, Munch said it is her goal to find common ground amicably, though striking is a tool that is “always hanging out there” if the teachers choose that avenue.

Tuesday’s School Board debate over the proposed agreement was far from amicable, with outbursts of anger from Meza, shouts of discord from the large group of teachers in the audience, name-calling, and accusations of deceit from both sides.

The 5-3 vote fell along predictable lines, with the five members voting against the agreement being those members who were most recently elected to the board in 2010 with strong backing from the business community.

Cedric Floyd abstained. On Wednesday, Floyd said he did not want to be on the losing side of the vote and relinquish his right to put the issue back on the agenda. Otherwise, it cannot be revisited for a year. Floyd said his decision was based on Meza saying that he could come up with his own document.

“I wanted to give him room to come up with that and move forward,” Floyd said.

But Meza said that rather than go back to the table with the union, he plans to offer teachers another one-year contract for the 2013-14 school year, similar to the one they signed this year.

“It should not even be a bump in the road,” he said. “The priority is telling people that their pay is protected, their benefits are protected, and their grievance procedures and due process are protected.”

In an email he sent to the district’s educators on Wednesday, Meza gave examples of teacher engagement in decision making, including recently created focus groups with teacher representation.

“We are committed to increasing teacher voice in the decisions and policies adopted by the district,” he wrote. “Our number one priority is to continue to make the right decisions for our students and to make sure that teachers and staff have the conditions and the support in place so that they can do the same.”

Meza reiterated an argument made Tuesday night by Gary Jones, assistant superintendent for the state Department of Education. Jones said that “90 percent of districts in Louisiana don’t have a collective bargaining agreement in place and that did not lessen the ability of teachers to be heard in decision making.”

But teachers at the meeting expressed a need for something in writing, as well a gesture of support that had less to do with the details in the contract and more with a general sense of mutual trust.

Addressing the board, teacher Leo Laventhal said that in order to work at their peak, teachers need encouragement, respect and a seat at the table. Laventhal called the proposed contract “conservative and limited in scope, and a way to constructively channel concerns and suggestions.”

Jones and Meza, however, said that continued improvement requires autonomy for principals and as much flexibility as possible.

Meza said Wednesday he has no plans to reopen negotiations and that the board did not direct him to do so. After a year trying to work things out with the union, Meza said, there was no substantive change to the original agreement, as was the directive.

But Munch said there are many things that didn’t make sense to rewrite, such as guaranteeing a 30-minute duty-free lunch. “Teacher issues are teacher issues,” Munch said. “Some things are going to be the same things.”

Munch also took issue with Meza’s claim that he didn’t see the contract prior to the teachers’ ratification. Munch said during the negotiation process she always made copies for him and was led to believe he was being updated by the appointed team.

Being accused of hastily shoving it through, Munch said, she did not understand why proposed changes were not brought to her in writing between the teachers’ March vote and the board’s vote on Tuesday. “If something needs to be in there, give it to us,” she said. “Nobody ever did.”

Based on the past year, Meza said, things went smoothly without an agreement.

“It’s very clear to me we don’t need a contract,” he said.“It’s not about a contract — it’s about power and control.”