It’s not hard to connect the dots. Nine months ago, when Education Commissioner Johnny Key demanded that the Little Rock Education Association agree to strip Little Rock teachers at struggling schools of the employment protections enjoyed by all other public school teachers in the state, the goal was to kill the LREA, the lone teacher’s union in the state that still represents teachers in collective bargaining. Community outcry and a marathon emotional State Board of Education meeting nearly killed the proposal, but at the last minute, Board member Sarah Moore made a motion to end fair dismissal protection for all LRSD teachers. Her motion carried.
Still, the LREA persisted.
Moore, a former staffer of Governor Hutchinson, took more direct aim today. At the end of a surprise special meeting where the Little Rock community learned that the Education Department and the State Board had been meeting secretly — in violation of the Freedom of Information Act — to develop a plan to divide the district and return it only to an elected board with limited power, Moore introduced a motion to instruct Key to inform the LREA that it will no longer be recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent of the district after its contract ends Oct. 31. She said — amid outcries of “Noooo!” and “Criminal!” and “Who paid you?” — “I’ve put a lot of thought into this. I’ve had a lot of conversations.”
Noting that Act 728 required the district to create a personnel policy committee, a group of teachers and administrators that negotiate teacher contracts in districts without union representation, she also included in her motion that the LRSD create a personnel policy committee and work with a third party to do so. She said she had worked in districts with personnel policy committees that had worked well. She noted that the Fort Smith School District worked with an outside party to establish a personnel policy committee after the district stopped recognizing the Fort Smith teachers union in negotiations.
After a public comment period that included a plea from LRSD Superintendent Michael Poore that the board not “throw the community into disarray” by approving the motion, the board voted to table the motion until its October meeting, with all members but Moore supporting the motion to table.
Afterward, Teresa Knapp Gordon, the president of the LREA, said she would call a meeting of her members. Will they vote to strike? “That will be up to our members,” she said.
Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) sponsored Act 728 earlier this year. It made mandatory the creation of personnel policy committees in all districts, where the law had previously allowed an exemption for districts that collectively bargained with teachers associations. In testimony, Ballinger said the change was all about ensuring that the exemption didn’t lead to teachers “duty-free” lunchtime or planning periods being reduced or taken away and said multiple times that it wasn’t an attack on collective bargaining. Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) suggested that Ballinger was being disingenuous about his aims: Why would a group representing teachers push to reduce planning period time or take away duty-free lunch? Cathy Koehler, then president of the Arkansas Education Association, testified that many of the state’s laws providing planning time and other protections to teachers came out of past negotiations in the LRSD. She and Gordon, who also testified, noted that the LRSD would be the only district affected by the law change.
After the meeting today, Gordon said that the LRSD had long had a personnel policy committee. It had worked for 2 1/2 years to draft a personnel manual that she said Key had refused to sign.
Asked why Key had refused to sign, Education department spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said, “The personnel policy manual that was submitted for Secretary Key’s approval has several areas of conflict with state law and with district policy. To date, those conflicts have not been resolved, and until they are, he won’t approve the manual. He has asked ADE Legal staff to continue working with LRSD to resolve the conflicts.”
Gordon also noted that state law says that election to a personnel policy committee be solely exclusively conducted by teachers. Fort Smith sought and received a waiver from the State Board before it hired an outside group to set up a committee. Mundell didn’t respond to a question about the legality of the Board’s move today.