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Critics say the Virginia School Boards Association is attempting to weaken collective bargaining for teachers just as local efforts ramp up
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Critics say the Virginia School Boards Association is attempting to weaken collective bargaining for teachers just as local efforts ramp up

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The bus fleet of Richmond Public Schools.

After taking a legislative stance against public school teachers’ efforts to unionize, the nonprofit that holds training for school board members is leading a workshop that critics say will teach school boards how to thwart collective bargaining efforts.

The Virginia School Boards Association, a nonprofit that trains school boards on effective governance, will hold an “alternatives to collective bargaining” workshop in Charlottesville on Dec. 7, which has raised concerns among local education associations trying to push for collective bargaining agreements since the law prohibiting them to do so was repealed last year.

The move comes as local school boards begin to take advantage of the repeal of a prohibition of public workers’ ability to engage in collective bargaining. Richmond Public Schools, so far, is the only district that has introduced a resolution to consider collective bargaining. The Henrico Citizen reported that the Henrico Education Association plans to push for collective bargaining as well.

The VSBA says there’s no need for naysayers to worry, because it isn’t attempting to tell them that collective bargaining is bad.

“It is an alternative for some who feel they don’t have the means to do collective bargaining,” said Gina Patterson, the executive director of VSBA, in a statement. “Nothing in the session is telling a division not to engage in collective bargaining.”

Instead of collective bargaining, the workshop will suggest alternatives like “meet and confer,” which is a form of negotiations between school boards and education associations, but without the legal obligation.

But James Fedderman, the president of the Virginia Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said there is no alternative to collective bargaining.

“There is no alternative to educators having a voice about their working conditions. There is no alternative to them. There is no alternative to ensuring you know, our educators are paid at or above the national average, that our support staff are able to make a living wage, there are no alternatives to that,” Fedderman said in an interview.

In August, the VSBA held a session on how to craft a strategic collective bargaining solution, which some representatives say critics are dismissing.

Critics of the VSBA say the workshop is just one symptom of a larger, systematic effort to undermine collective bargaining agreements in certain districts. The Richmond School Board is already facing similar allegations since deciding to move collective bargaining discussions to a committee instead of voting on the resolution of Kenya Gibson, Shonda Harris-Muhammed and Stephanie Rizzi to approve collective bargaining for the division’s teachers.

In a statement, Gibson said she believed the move was an attempt by the School Board to delay and weaken collective bargaining, even though Superintendent Jason Kamras has said he supports it.

“I was incredibly disappointed to see my colleagues assert that they support collective bargaining, while pushing this resolution into committee under the guise of legal compliance,” Gibson said in an Oct. 19 statement. “That’s a bogus excuse.”

Last year, Virginia repealed the prohibition of unionizing for public employees, including teachers, a move that the VSBA unilaterally opposed. Its reasoning, according to a list from the VSBA’s website, cites low student achievement in school districts with collective bargaining.

It also cites Virginia school boards lacking taxing authority, which could put monetary negotiations between teachers and school boards, like salary raises, in a bind.

Kristin Reed — an organizer with Richmond For All, an organization that advocates for fair housing and education, and a member of Virginia’s steering committee for United Campus Workers — said Virginia should change its taxing structure for school boards. She also said she doesn’t think the VSBA can act in good faith if it has actively worked against collective bargaining efforts.

“As soon as I saw that they were going to be doing a workshop on this, I recognized that this was likely to be training for board members on how to undermine bargaining campaigns in their districts,” Reed said in an interview.

She also said she believes the VSBA might be using coded language to teach school boards to weaken collective bargaining discussions.

“I think that one of the things that has been used to discredit public sector workers is to treat public sector collective bargaining as if public sector workers are greedy, like they’re only negotiating on their own behalf,” Reed said. “But actually, what we see when teachers unions take really proactive action is, they’re demanding exactly the stuff that their kids need. People who go into public education, they want to serve the public, they want to serve students, and they want their working conditions to allow them to do that.”

Reed, alongside former Style Weekly reporter Tom Nash, sent Freedom of Information Act requests to 14 central Virginia school districts asking for communications between school officials and the VSBA, specifically regarding the workshop. No request was sent to the VSBA because it’s a nonprofit and is not subject to FOIA.

One result from Petersburg Public Schools shows that Petersburg School Board member Hal Miles will attend the session.

Miles did not respond to an email from the Richmond Times-Dispatch with questions about his attendance, but Petersburg Public Schools confirmed the authenticity of the FOIA and confirmed Miles’ attendance as part of state-required professional development.

“The workshop registration attached is one of many ongoing professional development opportunities provided by the Virginia School Boards Association to support requirements for local school board members as noted in ... the Code of Virginia,” said Jeannette Berrios, the board clerk for the district.

While Patterson says the workshop doesn’t speak to the VSBA’s stance on collective bargaining, the organization does have a legislative stance against the repeal that prohibited public employees from unionizing. But Patterson says its legislative advocacy, set by a governing body of the VSBA, is separate from the support it provides local school boards.

The organization urged lawmakers to vote no on the repeal, claiming studies showed that collective bargaining was bad for student achievement. Members also believe that collective bargaining is not in the best interest of Virginia’s local school boards because they have no taxing authority, which could make pay raises tough. The VSBA has also said it endorses legislation that increases teacher pay.

The organization also had a task force on collective bargaining, in which Chesterfield Public Schools Superintendent Merv Daugherty took part. Neither Daugherty nor a spokesperson for Chesterfield schools responded to an inquiry regarding his participation in the task force.

That study noted that if school boards should take part in any collective bargaining, they should aim for “integrative bargaining” instead of “positional bargaining,” painting the latter as a problematic form of bargaining where only one party gets its way.

While unfamiliar with the terms integrative and positional bargaining, Fedderman agrees that collective bargaining should be a “win-win” for everyone.

“I think in effective collective bargaining, both parties come out as winners,” he said. “There are no losers in true collective bargaining.”

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