he Albuquerque Public Schools board narrowly ratified a teachers union contract Wednesday night, after a lengthy discussion that left the board still at an impasse as to whether and how the board can change district policy in ways that conflict with a union contract.
The issue centers around language in the contract that says teachers who are also state legislators can receive their salaries while serving in Santa Fe. That language was left in the contract, even though the board voted in May to disallow such pay.
Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said the board had acted in bad faith by taking a public vote on the issue before bringing it to the bargaining table. She said such a vote violated the procedures APS and the union have long followed.
“What happens when a public vote is taken on a contract provision, is it violates that process that we have both agreed to. So instead of having an honest conversation at the table and focusing on problem solving and each other’s interests, we become positional, and we’re at odds,” Bernstein said. “It also opens me up, as a union leader, to a precedent that I cannot allow. And that precedent is that at any given time, if any board wants to take a right away that we have mutually agreed upon, they can vote on it and dictate what happens during negotiations.”
APS Superintendent Winston Brooks has said he signed off on the contract, despite the legislative pay issue, because it will not affect anyone this year. Of APS’ three employee-legislators, one is not running for re-election, one has already said he will decline pay for time in Santa Fe, and one is an administrator and therefore not covered by the contract.
Board member Martin Esquivel, who voted against the contract, argued that he believes the union’s position undercuts the board’s ability to debate issues in the open and set public policy.
“I think this issue of having to run a policy issue by the union before an action is taken really limits our ability as policy makers,” Esquivel said. He also said he believes the union’s position encourages the board to violate the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.
Esquivel’s position, which he laid out using PowerPoint slides that included a copy of the Open Meetings Act, is that the board must make policy in the open, not by reaching a private consensus and then directing the administration to negotiate based on that consensus. He said without a public vote, he believes the board is left without a legal way to communicate its wishes to the administration.
“How, exactly, is management supposed to know what the position of the board is, without actually taking a vote on that particular issue?” Esquivel said. “I just don’t understand. Are they supposed to read the minds of the seven board members and say, ‘We’ve got four votes, we’ve got five votes?’ ”
Bernstein contended that the Open Meetings Act allows the board to meet in closed session to discuss negotiating strategies and provide guidance to the administration before bargaining begins, and they could discuss such issues in those meetings.
Esquivel countered that those sessions are meant for setting negotiation strategies, not for making policy, and that those things are distinct. The back-and-forth between Esquivel and Bernstein got testy at one point, prompting board president Paula Maes to cut in and suggest the discussion remain focused on the contract at hand.
The board is set to discuss the issues Esquivel raised at a future policy committee meeting.
Joining Esquivel in his dissent were board members Kathy Korte and David Robbins.
The contract was ratified with “yes” votes from board members Paula Maes, Analee Maestas, Lorenzo Garcia and David Peercy.
Korte and Robbins both said they agreed with the procedural issues Esquivel raised. Korte has also been vocal about concerns that the contract does not have good mechanisms for assisting and potentially firing ineffective teachers.
Robbins said he believes the union had plenty of notice that the board might act on the issue of legislator pay, and could not have been blindsided by the vote in May.
“This hit the news in late October, early November, this issue of pay for legislators,” Robbins said. “The public was outraged. They expressed their outrage in December, January, February, my email and my correspondence was running 90 percent saying ‘You better change this policy.’”
He said that if the board doesn’t change the legislator pay policy, they may face a board after the next school board election that takes even stronger stances on union issues.
“I think the union runs the risk of losing the support of the public,” Robbins said.
The approved contract does not include any raises for teachers, although it does return a paid training day that had been removed from the contract for the past two years. The board also unanimously approved contracts for its clerical union, its educational assistant union, and its maintenance and operations union.
via ABQJournal Online » Teachers Union Contract Approved.