The anti-public education right has made tenure in education – or any teacher job security – a dirty term. So it took extraordinary circumstances for the supposedly progressive Austin ISD to weaken employee job security. Now those circumstances have been reversed, and the board is contemplating adding a little more stability to employees.
Up until 2011, AISD teachers who had passed through their probationary period were on three year contracts. Then in March of that year the district declared a state of financial exigency, giving the administration extraordinary cost cutting powers. A month later, trustees passed a slate of contract and employment revisions, including ending the issuance of three year contracts.
Three years later, and the last of the old three year contract are set to expire, leaving all staff (save one) on a year-to-year basis. However, last week the board heard a split report from a subcommittee on the state of contract negotiations between the AISD administration and employee union Education Austin. The two sides had formally declared an impasse, as the admin had refused to budge on the restoration of three year contracts even though the board had declared an end to exigency in 2012.
The subcommittee has split along highly predictable lines. Trustees Amber Elenz and Lori Moya (both seen as loyalists to Superintendent Meria Carstarphen) recommend keeping teachers on a year-to-year basis. However Trustee Tamala Barksdale, who is often more likely to veer from the admin's line, wants the three year contracts back.
Tonight, the Elenz-Moya recommendation will come up for a vote at the AISD board of trustees' meeting. However, it could well fail, as the board is highly divided. If it does, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis hopes that Barksdale's plan will come up for its own vote.
Education Austin did not openly oppose the 2011 contract changes, as they were already deeply enough embroiled in how employees sacked under the reduction in force were being treated. However, the union has always been unhappy with the change, and last November proposed its reversal to the AISD administration. "They showed no interest in negotiation. It was just a flat-out no."
The admin's argument in 2014 is the same as it was in 2011: Purely financial. They argue that restoring three year contracts will result in extra costs of $600,000 over the next four years in legal fees on termination hearings. That seems to be a weak argument for Zarifis. "We don't believe this is a financial issue. We believe this is about making terminations easier." He added, "To have one, two, or maybe three termination hearings in a year, is that outrageous?"
Zarifis argued that the current policy causes far more damage to the district than any benefit it creates in the human resources department, saying, "You don't terminate your way to a quality work force."
It's all part of a bigger teacher training and development question for AISD. As the lowest paying of the big districts in Central Texas, it already has a horrible track record on teacher retention. That's why it has always made such a big deal of its benefits package, such as health insurance and the REACH incentive system. Three year contracts were one way that the district built loyalty among staff. Moreover, they have been the national norm since the 1960s, and it's states like Texas, with its noted hostility towards workers' rights, that are the outliers. "We're in the most hostile environment for teachers in the country," said Zarifis. "We believe that it creates a more competitive environment when you have three year contracts in Central Texas when nowhere else does."
Of course, there's been no small commentary on the irony that the sole AISD employee on a multi-year contract is the architect of the RIF, Carstarphen (in fact, she was pushing for exigency and one year contracts in 2010, a year before the board caved.) She was originally hired in 2009 on a four year contract, but that has been extended twice by the board, and currently runs through to the end of the 2015. The board leadership has repeatedly made the argument that, well, of course the superintendent has to have a long contract. No-one could expect her to do her job in a year, right?
AISD's board of trustees meets at 6pm tonight at the Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth. However, as AISD likes to keep its most pressing business until the end of the agenda, the contract discussion is scheduled for 45 minutes, starting at 9:35pm.
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