A Change is in the Air
It’s often been said, “change doesn’t happen overnight” and when it comes to collective bargaining in Virginia, that adage couldn’t be any closer to the truth. In a previous blog, I wrote about how Virginia has been a “Right to Work” state for nearly 75 years, with teachers’ associations forbidden to negotiate with counties, cities and municipalities across the Commonwealth. Yet, that is finally set to change on May 1, 2021. This important new legislation, Virginia Code Section 40.1-57.2, will now permit local governments to recognize unions and certify them as the exclusive bargaining agents for all public employees.
Currently, more than 40,000 teachers and school support professionals belong to the Virginia Education Association (VEA). But with roughly 90,000 public school teachers in Virginia, most teachers and educational employees have never belonged to any union, and the majority remain unaffiliated with any group. Now is the time for all employees to join the VEA or another union. But will they? It will be their union which will be able to collectively bargain on their behalf, providing members with the job protection, academic integrity, higher salaries and benefits they deserve, including a viable pension and health plan. This pandemic continues to teach us all just how valuable and essential teachers are to children and how tightly they are woven into the fabric of American society.
I believe this new legislation is a major step forward and one which will benefit teachers, administrators and especially children and the public at large. Collective bargaining will provide an organized system to improve the overall environment in public schools as it benefits students and families. It will help educators negotiate for a higher level of pay, something that has long been a sore spot in Virginia, as only 16 other states pay their teachers a lower yearly wage. However, it is noteworthy that Virginia’s next proposed budget includes a 5% salary increase for teachers. And when educators and management can agree on salary, benefits and working conditions, everyone succeeds in the long run. Virginia needs to retain its excellent teachers and educational employees.
With 227 school districts spread out across Virginia, educators need a common voice to speak on their behalf in their district and to provide insight into what is happening in other districts throughout the state. Collective bargaining, through a connected statewide organization, gives educators, this voice and it’s a voice administrators and school boards should not be hesitant to hear.
Working together, there are multiple areas that teachers and administrators can address in collective bargaining. These include, but are not limited to:
- A code of safety that gives teachers the peace of mind to return to and remain in their classrooms in pandemic and post pandemic times.
- The need to stop excessive testing, allowing teachers the freedom to teach and not just test.
- A fair evaluation of a teacher’s performance which is not tied to just how well their students perform on standardized testing and includes their peers.
- An agreed upon flexible curriculum that provides teachers with the ability and freedom to educate students on such topics as slavery, the Civil War, justice, equality and history in general in an unbiased and factual manner while also providing them the freedom to explore many different perspectives.
- A guaranteed stipend for teachers to buy needed supplies so that they are not paying out of their own pocket for the important materials and often the food their students need.
- High speed internet access and laptops for all students whose parents don’t have the financial means.
Collective bargaining also applies to two extremely “hot-button” issues I’ve become very familiar with: teacher discipline and teacher termination.
School Boards hold an unfair advantage when it comes to charges filed against educators and the process for an eventual decision of discipline or termination. Decisions affecting the fate of these teachers are not always made on an impartial basis. In fact, I have represented multiple teachers where this has been the case. The current system has only one person making that crucial ruling, with that someone appointed by the school board itself.
I have been privy to examples of ex-law enforcement officers hired to investigate teachers, ranging well beyond their professional lives, using the tactics of intimidation and even threats. On multiple occasions, I and teacher representatives have also been prohibited from representing a teacher at the beginning of this emotional and arduous disciplinary process, or for that matter at all.
What collective bargaining can hopefully achieve for educators is true due process from the start…and where we return to the system where their case will be heard by a tribunal composed of an educator, an administrator and a neutral third party.
This system was purposely changed after the very public case of Fairfax County teacher Craig Gordon, whom I had the privilege to represent. His termination case was well documented in the D.C. media and was transformed into a national cause when it was the subject of a special episode of “48 Hours” on CBS.
We need to return to and improve the discipline and termination process where representation will be afforded as soon as a charge is levied against a teacher, and be available throughout this often long, but hopefully fair and impartial process. Collective bargaining is not meant to swing the pendulum in the direction of the teachers, but rather for it to land squarely in the middle to restore justice and provide even handedness.
With so many issues facing teachers, communities, school boards, and, of course students these days, we don’t need conflict, but rather collaboration. Educators need to feel protected and that their relationship with the administration isn’t one of mistrust and an “us versus them” mentality but rather one where everyone is in this educational process together on behalf of the children.
As an attorney at Offit-Kurman who specializes in educational law, and with 38 years of experience representing teachers throughout Virginia, I am here to answer your questions.
If you have a question about this or any education law matter, or if you need legal representation or services, please contact me ator
ABOUT STEVEN STONE
Mr. Stone represents clients before all state courts in Virginia, before government agencies, and before local governments, school boards, and departments. His clients include area education associations, businesses and other trade and professional organizations; Families and individuals. He also has provided legislative and lobbying services on behalf of a wide variety of groups – labor, business, attorneys and doctors. He takes pride in the fact that most of his cases are quietly resolved in the best interest of his clients. His philosophy is that every reasonable effort should be made to settle legal claims or disputes in a way that protects his clients’ rights, and that costly litigation and adversarial proceedings should always be the last resort.
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