A divided Jefferson Parish School Board voted Tuesday to approve a collective bargaining agreement with the district’s teachers for the first time in three years.
It was the most decisive step yet by the board’s new union-backed majority, which took office this year promising to roll back controversial changes brought about by the district’s last superintendent, James Meza, and a business-backed board majority. The effort to bring back collective bargaining was among the top priorities of the new majority.
Proponents of a new agreement said the district’s 3,000 educators and other personnel must have a contract in place to ensure they are treated fairly and given a voice. Detractors see collective bargaining as a step backward after years of rising test scores without it.
After last year’s School Board elections, it’s the proponents driving the district’s agenda. And on Tuesday, they mustered a 5-4 vote for a contract covering all of the district’s employees through June 30, 2018.
The new four-page agreement isn’t nearly as intricate as past ones. The last one ran more than 100 pages.
But Cathy Johnson, president of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, said it does give educators back a measure of “respect, professionalism, dignity” and input, which they felt was lost in the three years they spent without a union contract.
Opponents on Tuesday reiterated that an overarching contract was superfluous. Board member Larry Dale said he and his colleagues have been reasonably responsive to educators’ concerns even without an agreement. “We had a good system,” he said.
Jefferson’s school system first struck a collective bargaining agreement with its teachers in 1977, and for decades it was one of just a few districts in Louisiana to have one.
Beginning in 2011, a faction backed by Jefferson Parish business and civic groups gained a majority on the School Board and blocked the renewal of a collective bargaining agreement that lapsed in 2012. Instead, the district gave employees individual contracts lacking many of the features that the systemwide agreement had.
But last year’s elections gave a slight edge to a slate of union-backed candidates: board President Cedric Floyd, Ricky Johnson, Marion “Coach” Bonura, Melinda Doucet and Ray St. Pierre.
Doucet didn’t vote with the rest of her bloc Tuesday after promising during her campaign that she would not push for a new collective bargaining agreement, saying it wouldn’t be necessary if policies were fair to teachers.
But Floyd, Johnson, Bonura and St. Pierre picked up the needed fifth vote from independent board member Mark Morgan.
Joining Doucet in voting against the contract were Dale, Melinda Bourgeois and Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge, all of whom count on the support of the business community.
Dale, Bourgeois and Denapolis-Bosarge also opposed the recent appointment of Superintendent Isaac Joseph, who was supported by the union bloc as well as Morgan.
Pro-union board members have been working toward a new contract with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers for months. Morgan said he joined them after ensuring language in the agreement would not undermine the authority of leaders at each of the district’s individual schools.
Morgan said previous collective bargaining agreements created too much of an adversarial relationship between principals and their staffs, with teachers reflexively taking disagreements to their union representative. “Instead of working out issues at the schools, the first call was to the union,” he said.
Still, the new agreement does echo some language in the old one. It requires, for instance, that teachers be given three days’ notice before a non-emergency faculty meeting. It stipulates how teachers should arrive at school, leave, get paid and be disciplined.
A three-page appendix provides a starting salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree of $40,949. Most certified special education teachers get $723 extra.
Johnson said her union will continue to push for a deal that’s closer to previous contracts.
“It’s not the end-all, be-all that the old contract was, but that was after 30 years of negotiations,” Johnson said. “It’s a start.”