Columns » Max Brantley

Can we get along?

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The Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association has remained a constant through decades of revolving-door superintendents and School Board members. As a result, it has accrued significant clout, maybe even too much.

Now the School District is headed by a superintendent, Roy Brooks, even less given to consensus management than most of his predecessors. A majority of the School Board, too, seems inclined to limit union prerogatives in negotiations for a contract for the next school year.

Last week came another indication of a relationship nearing meltdown. Board member Tony Rose told teachers to “shut up” when they grumbled at a board meeting about some of the things Rose had said in an angry response to a statement by Grainger Ledbetter, executive director of the CTA. The CTA has declared an early impasse in contract negotiations — a wise move, I think. It asked for a federal mediator to try to work out an agreement on the administration’s desire for total control over special pay arrangements for teachers. Currently, teacher approval (by an excessive 75 percent majority) is necessary to implement “merit pay” ideas.

Rose’s outburst wasn’t the only rudeness. Deputy Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh angrily called in security over a brief interjection from a member of the audience during a discussion of closure of Southwest Middle School. A teacher in the audience said Board member Tom Brock (completing a board term by appointment) referred to members of the CTA as “horses’ butts.” Brock tells me he “can’t remember” saying such a thing (he’s a staff member at a Baptist church), but he readily concedes he wasn’t happy with the teachers and that he may have uttered an unhappy aside during the meeting. “They were less than respectful,” he said.

Board members are peeved that teachers don’t credit them sufficiently for recent pay increases. Teachers note that the size of general pay increases and some special pay for extraordinary certification wouldn’t have happened without union representation. Plus, teachers aren’t motivated solely by money. Working conditions are important, too. They think they might have some good ideas about school operation, hard as that might be for a central office martinet to understand.

Teachers probably should work under something less than a 90-page contract. But they have reason to resist the superintendent’s autonomy over pay. The first merit pay test was financed secretly by a frequent public school critic and union enemy, Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman. Money was awarded to teachers by non-objective criteria. The experiment was labeled a huge success though the test scores suggested a failing school. Teachers have reason to be skeptical when a superintendent secretly rents out policy authority to an ideologue on account of little more than a fat wallet and a big printing press.

Both Brock and Board member Baker Kurrus assured me last week that — contrary to appearances — a decision has not yet been reached on decertification of the CTA as a bargaining agent. The CTA insists that it’s open to contract modifications and doesn’t want a strike. If you accept both sides’ representations, you can have more hope about the situation than I currently possess.

This much is clear. The school administration has the power to run the district like a plantation. But history suggests that you get little more than grudging compliance, and not a shred of respect, by abusing field hands and mules. Sometimes, you inspire a rebellion.




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