AISD Approves Employee Policy (Finally)

Six months of delays leads to 6-1-1 vote

AISD Approves Employee Policy (Finally)

After months of delays, changes and unnecessary ugliness, the AISD Board of Trustees has finally revised its policy dealing with employee relations.

The new policy retains the system of having a single elected employee group as the consultation agent, the main point of contact for the district in discussions about staff pay and conditions. However, their elected term is cut from four years to two, and they will meet once a month with a new consultation agent advisory council, drawing members from all employee organizations. The CAAC will meet at a district facility, and those meetings will be open to all employees. That means that, while Education Austin remains the exclusive consultation agent, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, and the Southwest Workers Union will all get members on the CAAC.

The new plan was approved 6-1, with a single abstention. In a surprising turn of events, president Mark Williams – who had previously said he would vote against the measure – backed the plan, and instead Lori Moya was the sole nay vote. Cheryl Bradley abstained, while Vince Torres was absent by that point in the evening.

The old agreement was supposed to be re-upped last November. Education Austin, as the sole contender for the position of exclusive consultation agent, was expecting it go through on the nod. The deal had passed happily through the board policy committee, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and her staff had made their recommendation by not just putting it on the agenda, but on the consent agenda – the ultimate sign that everything was fine. And then, with no warning, her staff get the board to pull it at the last minute – with no notification of to Ed Austin – and the board wobbled for six months. Half a year goes by and Ed Austin is back as consultation agent, with a new outreach structure that co-president Rae Nwosu has very publicly praised (not least because it formalizes what the union has been trying to anyway, and that's employee outreach.)

Explaining her 'nay' vote, Moya (who sits on the same policy committee that originally recommended no change to the old policy) said she was not happy about a bunch of stuff, but one clause caused real ire. She was unhappy with terms that allowed a former regular AISD employee to serve as part of the consultation agent's list of designees. Even when it was pointed out to her by Human Capitol Officer Michael Houser that the clause had been in place for years, and that it was to allow union presidents to either go on permanent leave or resign from the district (freeing up a district salary), she said that was one of several reasons she opposed the deal. Bradley voiced the same concerns, but was only prepared to abstain, while Williams swallowed enough of his concerns to vote for the measure.

They were not alone in being unhappy with the new policy. However, others were worried about diluting the process into inefficiency. At-Large trustee Tamala Barksdale was annoyed by the continued use of the term exclusive and inclusive, because it misrepresented how consultation works. Moreover, she pointedly reminded her fellow trustees, the consultation agent is chosen exactly how she, as an at-large member, is elected: By a popular, districtwide vote.

As for the CAAC, trustee Robert Schneider pointed out, the district had experiment with a similar 'king's council' in years past and that had failed miserably. He mused, "What are we going to do? Are we going to review this, where if we hold meetings for six months and no-one shows up, we're going to continue the practice anyway?" Carstarphen tried to allay those fears by saying that the current term will expire in December 2013, and staff will review the policy again then.

Ultimately, it was trustee Sam Guzman who stepped forward to defend Ed Austin. Noting that the deal was not perfect for either the district or the union, he called it "a good compromise" and stressed that he had confidence that the union is "cognisant and sensitive to the overall need to represent employees" and not just their members.

Even though the new deal extended their involvement, not all employee groups were happy. APTE did not send its local president to comment before the vote: Instead, the group dispatched its PR director Larry Comer, who told the board dismissively that the proposal "save a few semantics, is nothing more than the current bad policy warmed over." Let's remember, ATPE was quite happy to run for the position of exclusive consultation agent right up to the point that it was clear that one: they would have to share costs for the election and two: that they did not have the ground game to beat Ed Austin. Claiming that he was still taking the moral high ground, Comer went on to say "this was an exercise in utter futility."

Similarly, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association did not send its local representative, but instead it was director of public affairs and staff attorney Lindsay Gustafson who addressed the the board. She followed Comer's meme, arguing that the exclusive arrangement meant that her members were not actually represented: Rather than paying $500 a year to join Ed Austin, they were paying the $140 a year membership for TCTA. "From our perspective," she said, "this is more of a tweak to the current process, and hardly the badly-needed overhaul that was needed."

Something worth noting here: ATPE and TCTA appearances at AISD board meetings are pretty much like a white elk sighting. Both Ed Austin and the Southwest Workers Union are regular attendees and speakers, so let's just take that into account. They have, however, been quite happy to reach out to Carstarphen and the board directly on issues like the exclusivity deal. There have also been serious questions about whether they are real unions or just providers of liability insurance. In fact, the new policy locks the consultation agent into only using the consultation process to handle issues covered by its terms: Other groups can quite happily contact and lobby the board directly. So Ed Austin's representatives in the consultation agreement couldn't speak at citizen's communication on, say, salaries, but anyone from TCTA or ATPE, even if they sit on the CAAC, can. "How's that not restricting free speech?" asked Schneider.

Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin, did not name ATPE or TCTA when he made his statement to the board. However, he did make a sly reference that, unlike certain groups, his organization was locally-based and worked at the campus level, not just statewide. It was also pretty clear that he was not going to let the claims about the union's action go unchallenged. Under the old system, he said, "We've had numerous wins for all employees. Wages and benefits. Leaves for dads who have just had a newborn, that can now have paid leave, just like mom. Due process for all classified employees – something that's almost unique in the state of Texas." As he noted, the same National Board Certified employees that the trustees had lauded earlier now receive a stipend negotiated by the union. Ed Austin had pushed and negotiated for the REACH incentive, and worked on the joint innovation and insurance committees. But the reality is, he said, "That this is about voices." Just like the trustees, he said, Ed Austin only became the consultation agent because it won an election of all employees. That said, he praised Houser and his staff that "had worked hard to come up with a policy that gives everyone in this district a voice. A democratic voice. One strong voice."

The agreement also does not prevent any other group approaching the district. That was shown last night when Juan Barrientos, vice-president of Local 11 of the Southwest Workers Union, asked the board to help get the classified workers who feed, transport and help clean up after the students above poverty wages. Considering how badly they are paid, he argued, his members earned and deserve a 6% raise, rather than the 3% bump planned for all staff (let's not forget, 6% of not a lot is a hell of a lot less than 3% of the superintendent's salary.)

There has been a lot of talk about how much good could have been done with the money and energy the district burned through on the unpopular IDEA Allan plan: How much could the district have got done in the last sixth months if they had concentrated on the needs of workers, rather than tinkering with a representation deal that its own staff had said worked fine for over a decade?

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Education Austin, Austin Independent School District, Education, Cheryl Bradley, Lori Moya, Tamala Barksdale, Robert Schneider, Consultation Agent, Mark Williams, Juan Barrientos, Southwest Workers Union, ATPE, TCTA, Texas Classroom Teachers Association, Association of Texas Professional Educators

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