For almost four years, a slim majority on the Jefferson Parish School Board, backed by business and civic groups, has been at war with the union that represents the system’s teachers.

They have clashed over teacher assessments, layoffs, pay and the collective bargaining agreement that sets the terms of employment for the more than 3,000 educators in the district.

So far, the skirmishes over those changes — which board members say have been integral to improvements in the district — have been fought in board meetings and courtroom hearings. However, the front lines will move to polling stations across the parish on Nov. 4, when voters will elect the next board.

Though educational issues have not been absent from the races, lurking just below the surface are the labor issues that have been at the heart of the fight for the past four years. And with a union contract all but dead under the current board and with the next board faced with the task of replacing Superintendent James Meza, who has been at the center of the fights with the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, business and union groups across the state are taking an interest in an election they say will determine the fate of the union and the school system as a whole.

“I find the union folks have made it very clear that in their mind this is an election about having a union contract in Jefferson Parish, and they want the union to basically dominate the School Board and dominate the direction of education in Jefferson Parish,” said state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who has been a supporter of the board and has led the charge for overhauls to policies governing teacher employment at the state level.

“I don’t think the unions really want to do something that’s in contravention to good education for kids,” he said. “But I do think they place their priorities differently.”

Labor leaders say the changes backed by business groups introduce instability for educators, impairing their ability to be effective, and are driven more by a desire to drive out the union than a wish to improve outcomes for students. Many also question the validity of scores showing improvement in the district in the past few years.

“The board came in very much guided by dogma,” Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said. “There was a bargaining contract, and that was the first agenda, that ‘We don’t want to be that place that has a working relationship with a bargaining unit.’ ”

He added, “There’s been an unhealthy degree of turnover in the district. People are leaving, teachers that are seasoned deciding they have had enough.”

The fight mirrors debates raging around the country about the role of teachers unions in education.

As in Jefferson, many of those seeking to overhaul or turn around local school systems often have fought against unions and opposed collective bargaining contracts, arguing they impede the ability of districts to ensure educators are effective. Unions and teachers have pushed back, saying those agreements are necessary to provide protection to teachers and have little impact on their effectiveness in the classroom.

Challenges from educators

All five members of the Jefferson Parish School Board elected with the support of the business community in 2010 have drawn challenges from educators or explicitly pro-union candidates this year. That includes a race pitting former board President Larry Dale against Meladie Munch, head of the Jefferson teachers union.

At the same time, one sitting board member who has traditionally been sympathetic to the union is facing off against a political newcomer whose election would add to the business majority’s strength on the board.

The two blocs are getting support from groups both within and outside the parish, with members of the Jefferson Business Council and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry lining up on one side and the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers on the other.

Both sides view the election as a pivotal moment for the system. The current board majority and their supporters argue that retaining control of the board is the only way to continue improvements they say the schools have chalked up in recent years. They warn that defeat could spell the end of their efforts to overhaul the system.

Those backed by the Jefferson Federation of Teachers, on the other hand, fear another term under the current majority could spell the end of the union and enshrine an adversarial relationship between the board and educators that will cause experienced teachers to leave.

From an educational standpoint, the heart of the issue is how much the board’s current policies have contributed to year-over-year improvements in what had been a foundering school system and, to an extent, the validity of the statistics used to make that case.

The Jefferson Business Council has worked hard to make the case that there has been improvement in Jefferson’s schools, which serve an inordinate number of students who come from low-income homes or who face other challenges, such as speaking English as a second language.

Improving the perception of the schools has been a major priority for the parish Business Council because of the importance of education and because attracting businesses to the community is easier without having to sell the owners on the idea of sending their children to private schools.

“We want to keep the momentum going,” said Tony Ligi, a former state representative who serves as executive director of the Business Council. “To lose the reforms right now would just be totally counter-intuitive to where we are at.”

Improved scores

Supporters of the board point to improvements in the district’s ranking — it rose from 52nd in the state in 2010 to 36th last year — and its own scores. The district received a D from the state Department of Education but is now considered a B district, though that rating comes on a new scale implemented this year. Under the old ranking, the district would have received a C.

Those improvements, supporters say, have come from new policies put in place by Meza and the board majority, such as changes to teacher assessment policies. Many of those changes were later mirrored by policies implemented by the Legislature.

“I think what you’re looking at is a series of races that, taken collectively, would be a perfect pairing for what we in the state undertook,” said Appel, who chairs the Senate’s Education Committee. “If the current School Board plus a couple of new folks are elected, then I’m confident that the direction of that board will be a partner to what the state has undertaken and will see increased scores and outcomes for the schools in general.”

Those supporting the current majority are quick to argue that they fully support the district’s teachers and note that improvements in the district’s financial situation have allowed for raises this year.

After teacher pay was frozen for years, the School Board approved a plan this year to give raises to most system employees, granting an additional raise beyond those that had been missed. Munch said, however, that those raises still left teachers behind because they did not include back pay.

For the union and its supporters, the improvements in the district’s scores and ranking are not the result of any policies implemented by the current board. They scoff at the idea that a turnaround could be credited to new leadership without taking into account the years of work that came before. Instead, they say, it’s the teachers who should get credit for the improvements but who are now finding themselves having to fight against the School Board.

“Our teachers have been working hard for years. We saw more growth (in scores) under the previous board and superintendent than we saw under this board,” Munch said.

Who gets the credit?

Jefferson Parish’s schools were seeing steady improvement before the new board members took over in 2011, with its overall score rising about 15 points on a 200-point scale between 2008 and 2011. Scores jumped by 11 points in the next year, and those seeking an overhaul of the school system point to that, as well as the post-2011 improvements in the district’s statewide rankings, to argue their methods have worked.

Munch said the improvements in scores may not be all they appear, especially after the effect of closing seven failing schools — and thus moving their students to other facilities — is taken into account. She also suggested the data could be easily manipulated and don’t address other issues in the school system, such as discipline, a lack of prekindergarten education and overcrowded classrooms.

The union isn’t seeking to dominate the board, Munch said, but simply to get its members to be willing to talk with teachers about their issues.

For Monaghan, the issue in this fall’s election isn’t just about the Jefferson Federation of Teachers or even about education in the parish. The intense interest of the business community shows that the fight is as much about efforts to fight unions generally, he said. He pointed to the board’s rejection of a collective-bargaining agreement — which covers many aspects of teachers’ employment beyond just assessments and other educational issues — as evidence of that.

The Jefferson school system agreed to its first collective bargaining agreement with teachers in 1977, and for decades, it was one of only a handful of districts in the state to have such an agreement. The most recent contract expired in 2012, and last year the board rejected a new agreement, with the five business-backed members casting the votes against the deal.

At the time, some board members who favored the agreement accused the administration and the School Board majority of operating in bad faith to scuttle the contract, while those on the other side said the union was not willing to meet their demand to essentially start from scratch on a new agreement.

There has been little sign the board is willing to consider renewing a discussion about the contract, though it has signed individual contracts with all the teachers in the system.

Eroding support

At the same time, the union has seen its financial support eroding. Under state law, union members are allowed to decide whether to pay for the union’s representation, and the number of Jefferson teachers opting to have those dues automatically deducted from their checks has been in decline.

In 2011, about 68 percent of teachers opted for the automatic deductions. By September of this year, that number dropped to 43 percent, even as the total number of teachers eligible for union representation dropped from more than 3,500 to about 3,300.

Appel and Jim Garvey, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who represents the area, both grilled School Board candidates about their support for a collective bargaining agreement at a Jefferson Parish Republican Party Executive Committee meeting last week. Several of the union-friendly candidates are registered as Republicans — including some recent converts to the party that dominates Jefferson Parish politics — but none of those who said they favored signing an agreement won the support of the local party.

After a forum Thursday, the Alliance for Good Government issued endorsements that were split between the two sides. In four of the races dominated by the union issue, they endorsed the business-backed candidates: board members Larry Dale and Mark Jacobs and newcomers Melinda Bourgeois and Ray Griffin Jr. However, two candidates opposing that slate also won the group’s backing: Marion “Coach” Bonura and Gene Katsanis, a former board member who was ousted in 2010.

How the labor issues will play out with the electorate remains an open question, and the races could see a classic match-up pitting better-funded candidates on one side against challengers with better organizational ability to get out the vote.

The Jefferson Business Council itself doesn’t give money to candidates, though Ligi said he expected its individual members would be involved in the races. The first campaign finance reports for the election won’t be released until next month, but those donations are expected to give the council’s preferred candidates a large advantage in fundraising.

“We’re putting a tremendous amount of importance on it,” Ligi said.

Money vs. enthusiasm?

Both state and local union organizations are limited in the amount they can give, and most individual members of those groups likely do not have a lot of money to give to candidates. At the same time, the pro-union candidates could benefit from a much better organized apparatus to get out the vote on Election Day, support by parents who may personally know some of the educators now campaigning and enthusiasm from teachers with a direct stake in the election.

With a U.S. Senate race at the top of the ballot, voter interest is expected to be high on Nov. 4. But with the ballot presenting voters with a long list of choices — including judicial races, 14 constitutional amendments and a variety of campaigns for other offices — it remains to be seen how many will actively pay attention to the School Board contests.

Those contests’ profile was raised by a recent column by Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, who used the Jefferson School Board election — and what he called the “aggressive” campaign by the union — as a sign of the importance of local elections.

That attention, Monaghan said, just proves the importance of this fall’s vote.

“If there’s anyone in my universe that believes the other folks don’t believe these School Board races are important, they need to know that the premier big business representative believes it is,” Monaghan said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.