Pulaski teachers protest board vote against union

AP News
Posted: Dec 10, 2009 6:26 PM

Union-represented teachers in the Pulaski County School District stayed home Thursday to protest a school board decision to end recognition of their union.

All 39 schools in the 18,000-student district remained open, with substitute teachers and parent volunteers filling in for the absent teachers, Acting Superintendent Rob McGill said.

"Our first priority was getting students in the classrooms, getting substitutes or volunteers in the classrooms and proper supervision for the students," McGill said.

"I've had no phone calls as far as schools saying (they are) overwhelmed and can't handle the situation," he added.

Of the district's 1,380 teachers, 690 were out Thursday, exactly half. About a dozen teachers are out on a typical day, McGill said.

The district has 17,860 students, and 14,460, 81 percent, were in school Thursday. Normally about 6 percent of students are absent, McGill said. He attributed the children's absences to the teachers staying home and said he knew of no health-related reason for so many students to be out.

McGill said the day would be unpaid, but the union said the day is covered under a leave clause in the contract.

The Tuesday vote ending union recognition came as the board was close to approving a new contract, which the teachers union had already ratified.

Marty Nix, president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, said the 4-2 vote to decertify was unexpected.

"We were flabbergasted," she said.

The union authorized Nix to call a strike. She said Thursday that was still possible but the union was looking at a number of options.

McGill said the current contract remains in force, though the union and the district interpret it differently.

Nix pointed to contract language that says the union is certified as long as a majority of district teachers are members. About 70 percent have union cards, so the vote appears to have been improper, Nix said.

School board president Tim Clark of Maumelle maintained the vote was proper.

A lawsuit may be the next step for the teachers.

"We're looking at breach of contract, for one thing," Nix said. "We're looking at several areas."

McGill said he and the school board are being guided by the district's lawyers.

"We're honoring that contract ... at least through the end of June (when it expires)," he said. "If there is litigation, then we will determine what to do at that point," he said.

If the decertification holds, the only Arkansas school districts with unions will be in Fort Smith and Little Rock. The Pulaski County district includes areas of the county outside the borders of Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Nix described the board's vote as a "betrayal" because two of the board members who voted against the contract, Clark and member Charlie Wood of Sherwood, drew union contributions and volunteers in their elections.

Wood said the district had been devoting too much time to handling union grievances, and if the walkout went on for more than three days, the district should start firing teachers.

"I'm not vengeful," Wood said. "But if you don't show up for work, you fire them."

Nix provided Clark's response to a union questionnaire, in which he responded "NO!" to a question on whether he would ever make a motion to decertify the union.

Clark said he didn't make the motion, but merely voted for it once Wood brought it to the floor.

"I have supported the union. As time grew, I realized there were issues and problems that we could not overcome," Clark said. He said his constituents understand he must have good reasons for changing his mind.

The board could still reverse course and recertify the union, but one of the members voting in the majority would have to bring the issue back to the floor.

"Don't hold your breath," Wood said.