Austin Education vs. Education Austin

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

An Education Austin rally in February
An Education Austin rally in February (Image by John Anderson and Jason Stout)

Nov. 21, 2011, was supposed to be a big day for Education Austin. The union was expecting to celebrate the start of another four years representing Austin ISD workers in their dealings with the administration. Instead, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen abruptly convinced the board of trustees to pull the deal and start considering other, unstated options. Now the arrangement is returning for discussion at the Feb. 20 board work session, with the possibility that trustees could dump a staff consultation system that has worked well for four decades.

Here's how the system currently works: Once every four years, AISD names an exclusive consultation representative. This being Texas, "collective bargaining" is not allowed, but the representative organization becomes the voice of district staff to the administration on issues like contract discussions and employment conditions. The group is selected by election: Any union or professional association with more than 200 dues-paying members can request to be on the ballot. For the last 12 years, Education Austin has won that election. This time around, it faced no challenges, so board policy is that the agreement would automatically be extended. The union's current deal was supposed to expire on Dec. 31, 2011, but, courtesy of a hastily approved extension requested by the administration, the board of trustees has until March 1 to determine what it wants to do. According to Education Austin Co-President Ken Zarifis, "The concern on the district's side was that there wasn't enough communications and input from other entities."

Who at the district has those concerns? The board's policy committee gave the current system a clean bill of health last fall, and, before Carstarphen's reversal, the administration made its recommendation by placing the item on the consent agenda. Board President Mark Williams said that he has no strong feelings on the shape of a consultation agreement but argued this is simply reasonable board oversight. "Revisit­ing the topic and just making sure we're doing the right thing is always healthy," he said. His prime concerns are twofold: giving the administration what it feels it needs for full consultation, and ensuring that all staff feel represented. "One of the things that I asked was, 'Have we gotten input from the employees about what serves them well?' Because they may not know enough about exclusive consultation to know one way or the other."

Advise and Consult

Ken Zarifis
Ken Zarifis (Photo by Jana Birchum)

With around 3,000 members, more than a quarter of all AISD employees have joined Education Austin. However, the union is expected to represent all staff during consultation, and Zarifis says that's exactly what they've been doing. He agreed that the union could perhaps do more to reach out to both members and nonmembers, and that depending on big staff meetings to get their input is not enough. The union, he said, needs to "be more sophisticated about it, with technology, with Skype, using phone conferences, and we feel we can do that." However, he rejects the idea that the union only represents or helps its own members. He was particularly frustrated that the administration had pulled the deal from the table at the last minute, leaving the union and district staff in limbo. Education Austin only found out that the administration was backpedaling when the board pulled the agenda item on Nov. 21: a strange move for an administration claiming it wants better consultation with employees. "It was surprising, to say the least," he added.

The big winner from any major revision in the consultation system would be the Association of Texas Profes­sion­al Edu­cat­ors. With 1,700 members, it's a fraction of the size of Education Aus­tin, but it wants an equal voice at the consultation table. However, ATPE is not a union and opposes pretty much every tool in the union arsenal, from collective bargaining to strikes. At the state level, ATPE opposes exclusive agreements like the one currently in operation in AISD, calling them "not appropriate for public education." In spite of that, the local unit mounted an election challenge to Education Austin last year. According to the district, the association withdrew when it was decided that the union and the association would have to cover election costs. However, ATPE Public Relations Director Larry Comer claimed the $7,000 ballot price tag was not the deciding factor. He said, "How much are we going to have to spend to win, or at least have a respectable showing, and at the end of the day, if it is indeed our principle that we have an inclusive model, why are we going to participate in an election?"

As the prime point of contact between the administration on West Sixth Street and employee organizations, AISD Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser is on the front line in this discussion. He's been meeting with the board policy committee and representatives of both Education Austin and ATPE, and said he is trying to blend all their interests before he makes any recommendation to the board. So far, he said, "There's a willingness to work between the parties ... but there hasn't been much give or take."

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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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin ISD, Education Austin, Association of Texas Professional Educators

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