There was applause in the Austin ISD boardroom Feb. 24 as trustees restored the longstanding tradition of three-year contracts for teachers and professional employees. However, there was clear tension on the dais, with the board split 5-4.
Currently, the district has roughly 12,000 employees. The three-year contracts will only be offered to the roughly 500 administrators and to 5,400 or so teachers, librarians, and other professionals. However, that does not include all teachers: 1,400 are still in their initial three-year probationary status, and so will remain on year-to-year contracts.
AISD used to offer three-year contracts to experienced staff, but that was canceled after 47 years in 2011 as part of a swath of cost-cutting exercises. During the latest annual contract renegotiations, the union and administration reached an impasse on contract duration, and asked the board to step in. A subcommittee split on recommendations, with Trustees Lori Moya and Amber Elenz recommending keeping the one-year deals, and Trustee Tamala Barksdale arguing for a return to three years.
In the days before the meeting, teacher advocates had been bullish on the belief that the Elenz-Moya measure would fail, and the three-year deal would come up for a vote next. But when the time came, Trustee Gina Hinojosa cut to the chase, immediately raising the three-year proposal. A clearly frustrated Elenz fired back that, while she did not oppose long contracts per se, "It's just not the right time," and that the debate so far had been "all emotion and heartstrings." She was also frustrated that the board had not heard of the issue before the impasse was declared.
However, Barksdale countered that contract negotiations only come before the board when there is an impasse. Moreover, it was Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser who had pushed for the issue to be settled as quickly as possible, so the district could start hiring for the 2014-15 school year in April. Barksdale also called out the fiscally conservative Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, which had previously said it would support any enhancement of teacher compensation that was revenue-neutral. "This is as close to revenue-neutral as we're going to get," she said.
The meeting included some surprising testimonies during citizens communication. Austin Association of Public School Administrators President Cathryn Mitchell, who represents district administrators and principals, opposed the plan, saying that "one-year contracts continue to be a responsible budget strategy." However, her proposal was overshadowed by a rare appearance by Council Member Mike Martinez. He told the board that he was not present as an elected official, but as a former president of the Austin Firefighters Association, who implored the board to go back to three-year deals. Flanked by supporters wearing red and black "3" stickers, Education Austin Vice President for Certified Employees Montserrat Garibay argued that short deals damaged AISD's already weak ability to retain good staff and made employees feel like "disposable napkins."
Those arguments swayed the majority of the board, with Trustee Jayme Mathias calling the contracts "a workers' rights issue." The core issue remains, he said, "how do we make Austin attractive to future employees," especially when Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley had told the board earlier that night that there is no money for raises in 2014 – in fact, as Hinojosa noted, the board was cutting the 1.5% bonus that teachers were given last year. Ann Teich and Robert Schneider formed the rest of the majority. By approving three-year contracts, Mathias said, the district sends a clear message that "AISD is not a puppy mill for teachers."
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