Austin Education vs. Education Austin

School district suddenly goes wobbly on longstanding relationship with faculty-staff union

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The reality is that there is a huge divide between Education Austin and ATPE. The local union wants to continue the current agreement, and Zarifis said his group is happy to work harder on outreach to nonmembers. ATPE, on the other hand, wants to dump the current system completely. Instead, they want any organization with 200 members to get two seats at the table. Comer said, "We're not asking anyone to give up their seat for us. We just say that, as an organization that represents some 1,700 employees, how can you pretend to get input from all employees and not include an organization of that size?"

Michael Houser
Michael Houser (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The result is that staff are mulling three options. Firstly, tweaking but keeping the current exclusive system. Secondly, an inclusive pro-rating system, whereby ATPE and Education Austin would each have three guaranteed seats during consultation, plus a seat each for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the Southwest Workers Union, each of which only has around 200 members locally. After that, anyone who could get 100 signatures could also be nominated; that's half of the current threshold for getting on the consultation representation ballot. The third option staff are considering is to just completely dump the idea of a consultation agreement. Ultimately, Houser said his biggest concern is ensuring adequate representation for all staff. He said, "I'm still concerned that there's about 55% of our employees that do not belong to an organization, so where is their input arising?"

Education Austin argues that too many voices in consultation could hamstring real progress, and that the current system works fine. After all, the consensus within the district is that the exclusive agreement has worked. Board members and senior staff point to pivotal components of policy – like the strategic compensation initiative and the recent money-saving shift to self-insurance – that were spearheaded by Education Austin. While relationships between the administration and the union have undoubtedly hit a rocky patch, board members also praised Education Austin for helping staff through last year's reduction in force.

That said, the consultation agreement is an unusual one by Texas standards. Out of 1,237 school districts, only 18 have a board policy regarding consultation agreements, and only four of those – AISD, Dallas, San Antonio, and South San Antonio – have exclusive agreements. However, it is generally the large urban districts, like AISD, that have consultation policies, and Austin's has been around longer than anyone remembers. Houser's entire 12-year professional career in Austin schools has been under the AISD-Education Austin agreement – an agreement whose history seems to have been lost in the district's vault. The best guess from staff is that it has been in place for at least 30 and possibly even 40 years. From the mid-1980s onward, the position of consultation agent was held by the Austin Association of Teachers, the local affiliate of the National Education Associ­a­tion, and the arrangement was simply written into board policy. In 1999, the AAT merged with the local Texas AFT affiliate, the Austin Federation of Teachers/Allied Education Workers, to form Education Austin. The board then rewrote its policy, implementing the current four-year term.

King's X

Every time AISD employees have voted on who they want to represent them, they picked Education Austin. Board President Williams called this latest debate a "no-harm situation" because it is simply a delay in the process, and called it "unfortunate" that Carstar­phen didn't keep Education Austin in the loop. He still argued that a more inclusive consultation process would be more democratic, but Zarifis countered that the ATPE proposal shifts the balance of power the wrong way. "We don't want appointments," he said. "We don't believe that's democratic."

Meria Carstarphen
Meria Carstarphen (Photo by John Anderson)

This is not the first time insiders have wondered how serious Carstarphen is about dealing with Education Austin. Most notably, in February 2011, the union only found out about the public announcement of the reduction in force when the Chronicle told them the district was holding a press conference detailing the thousand-plus layoffs: Carstarphen, who was out of town and left it to Houser to drop the axe, had not seen fit to give them the heads-up. Yet the timing of this latest move seems particularly suspect, as Education Austin is at the forefront of the campaign against letting IDEA Public Schools take over the Eastside Memorial Vertical Team. The backroom suspicion is that this delay in re-upping the consultation agenda agreement is either vendetta politics or, more simply, divide-and-conquer union-busting intended to dilute the influence of one of Carstarphen's toughest critics. Zarifis said, "Anyone looking at this from the outside and looking at the sequence of events would be hard-pressed not to come to that conclusion."

However, Carstarphen said the timing was purely coincidental and that, while bringing more groups to the table will mean more work for her human resources staff, "I believe it's work worth doing." In her time working in the Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, Minn., school systems, she said, she dealt with "labor unions, the real ones. ... We had a ton of unions for different issues, and we never did exclusive rights." She said that representatives of ATPE from both the local and state offices had visited with her about the exclusivity deal and "they have a legitimate, to me, concern and have a right to be at the table, too."

That does nothing to convince Texas AFT Secretary-Treasurer Louis Malfaro, who called Carstarphen "our own little Michelle Rhee. She doesn't like to play nice with the community, and now she doesn't like to play nice with her own employees." As the former president of Education Austin, Mal­faro spent a decade partnering with the district, and said that "consultation under [then-superintendent Pat Forgione] definitely accelerated and became more robust." By contrast, AISD now has "an administration that refuses to engage, refuses to be held accountable by anybody."

Malfaro argued that trustees should look not at other school districts as a role model for negotiations, but instead at other local public sector workers. "Austin is a city that has high regard for its public employees," he said. "We granted our fire fighters collective bargaining, and there's been a longstanding meet-and-confer agreement for the police union since the Seventies." He was particularly critical of the idea of having people be able to effectively buy their way to the table, especially since it was tried before – and failed. "They had a sort of king's council in the late 1980s, and all that encouraged was the spawning of all these fake organizations, where anyone with $5 dues and a list of 20 members could claim to be an organization. It was so dysfunctional that it just cratered in on itself."

All this leaves Houser in the strange position of working with Education Austin while considering new structures that could potentially damage their working relationship. For the moment, he's still working with the union on possible contract revisions. "I will not take any agreement forward with anyone except with Education Austin," he said, "unless I'm instructed ­otherwise."

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