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Richmond Public Schools teachers are first in the state to gain collective bargaining rights

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The Richmond School Board on Monday became the first in the state to approve collective bargaining.

In an 8-1 vote, the board formally recognized teachers’ rights to negotiate contracts, ending a decades-long restriction. Jonathan Young cast the lone dissenting vote in a meeting that was at times contentious.

Dozens of teachers for Richmond Public Schools packed the auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School wearing red shirts to signal their support for collective bargaining. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, also showed her support for collective bargaining during a rally prior to the meeting. During the debate, school division staff questioned whether the School Board really wanted to approve collective bargaining.

The commotion began when Dawn Page, who represents the 8th District, said she had concerns about voting on Monday. She said the district risked sabotaging itself if it didn’t study how much collective bargaining would cost first.

“We tend to pick and choose when to follow processes,” she said, criticizing her colleagues for not having a full board discussion on the recommendations from an ad-hoc committee. Virginia school boards cannot levy taxes, which means that salary negotiations have to be made within the constraints of the Richmond City Council.

She also noted that the city’s Local Composite Index is increasing, which means less funding from the state. “We need a complete financial analysis, and its implications because without a complete financial analysis, we will not know the ramifications.” Page ultimately voted in favor of approving collective bargaining.

The objection drew a sharp rebuke from the audience in support of bargaining, with exclamations that the School Board was attempting to stall. They also chanted a demand to vote on Monday night, and School Board Chair Cheryl Burke called a 10-minute recess. Some School Board members had a side conversation during the recess.

Teachers warned that if the body failed to pass collective bargaining, they risk a poor teacher retention rate and teachers leaving the district for neighboring counties. Teachers also said a seat at the table “without a fear of retribution” was integral to keep teachers in RPS.

Jerry Gunter, an instructional assistant with RPS for 11 years who works at River City Middle School, told the School Board that his line of work starts at a low wage, and collective bargaining could be a solution.

“[Collective bargaining] would give me an opportunity to negotiate,” he said in an interview. “I don’t even feel like I have an opportunity to try, I don’t even know where to start.”

The Richmond Education Association, which has ties back to the 1930s according to its president, has planned to take advantage of a new state law that took effect May 1, which lifted the prohibition on unionizing by public employees such as teachers and city workers. The resolution, initiated by School Board members Kenya Gibson, 3rd District; Stephanie Rizzi, 5th District; and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, was introduced in October.

Gibson has pushed for a swift vote on collective bargaining, noting concerns about the uncertainty of its future under the governorship of Republican Glenn Youngkin.

“What’s happening is we talk about grace, we talk about love, we talk about engagement, but we’re not listening. Beyond that, we’re not acting on it, and that’s what I want to see change,” Gibson said before the vote. “I know that when substitute teachers advocate to get more than $11 an hour… every student will benefit. I know that when teachers advocate to get a reasonable amount of planning time… every student will benefit.”

Young, the only vote against collective bargaining, said it was the wrong move for addressing the school division’s issues.

“If our objective is to provide autonomy for teachers... with capacity to make decisions absent middle men or women, absent having to check 10 or 13 different policies... if our objective is to provide our folks with agency in decision-making... I don’t see that collective bargaining is that tool,” he said.

Boaz Young-El of the Virginia Education Association said that the urgency isn’t centered solely on Republican leadership, but also that teacher associations have been fighting for collective bargaining rights in Virginia for decades.

“We’ve been waiting for this for generations, and the time is now,” Young-El said in an interview. “I think we have the political will to do so. And I think that we [should] act sooner rather than later. And I think our folks are more than ready.”

Collective bargaining has a controversial history in Virginia. In 1977, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a law that allowed public sector collective bargaining was invalid. The move made any public workers, like teachers and city workers, ineligible for unionization. On May 1, the law to repeal the prohibition, carried by Del. Elizabeth Guzman. D-Prince William, went into effect, but not without a fight.

The Virginia School Boards Association, a nonprofit that trains school boards on effective governance, took a legislative stance against the move, citing budget constraints and student achievement. Last year, outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam made a bid to delay the date of the effect of collective bargaining — the bill was passed in 2020, but didn’t take effect until this year.

It’s unclear what teachers can expect when it comes time to negotiate contract terms. When the School Board’s attorney, Jonnell Lilly, had concerns with the initial draft resolution, a committee was formed to create changes, which took hours of negotiating between School Board members and representatives from the education association.

“We made history. We are the first,” said Keri Treadway of the REA to a crowd of teachers celebrating the victory. “But we have all of our brothers and sisters around the commonwealth that are going to be going through the same fight. We need to help them. It is about solidarity, it is about support. So we take this win and we spread it across the commonwealth.”

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