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Two readings of the Pulaski school decision



Since they disagree on everything else, it's not surprising that Pulaski County teachers and Pulaski County school board members disagree on the meaning of a circuit court decision last week. The teachers' union, the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, sees Judge Timothy D. Fox's ruling as a total victory for their side, forcing the board to resume negotiation with the union. Board President Tim Clark and his lawyer, Jay Bequette, interpret the decision to mean that the Board has only to tie up a few loose ends, and then it can proceed to kick the union out of the Pulaski County School District, which is what it was trying to do when the union hauled the board into court.

There's no disagreement that Judge Fox sidestepped the question of whether teachers and other public employees can legally strike in Arkansas. Judges have dodged the issue before. Arkansas judges are elected, and a decision either way on the question of strikes by public employees could alienate a substantial number of voters. Fox, who's a candidate for the state Supreme Court, said in effect that other judges hadn't decided the issue, so he wouldn't either.

The school board and the union were negotiating a new contract last December when the board suddenly voted to stop recognizing PACT as the bargaining agent for teachers. Several hundred teachers walked out for a day in protest, and PACT filed suit, saying that the old contract between the union and the school board was in effect until a new one was signed, and the contract didn't allow the school board to stop recognizing the union. The school board filed a counterclaim, saying that the teachers had broken the contract by engaging in an illegal strike.

Fox ruled that a school board has the authority to terminate a union contract if certain legal requirements are met. Those requirements include the adoption of written personnel policies, and the creation of a committee on personnel policies. The Pulaski County School Board had not met those requirements, and therefore had exceeded its authority in terminating the union contract, Fox said.

According to Clark and Bequette, Fox's order appears to say that the Board could adopt personnel policies and create a personnel committee and then vote legally to end recognition of the union. “That doesn't mean we'll do that,” Clark said, “but it appears we have the authority.”

No such thing, says Marty Nix, president of PACT. Personnel policies and personnel committees are for school districts that don't have a teachers union, she said; they're intended to take the place of a union. PACT has an existing contract in the Pulaski County District, she said, and the school board can't abrogate that contract by adopting personnel policies and creating personnel committees. “PACT's negotiation team is the equivalent of a personnel committee,” Nix said. The proper course of action for the school board is to vote on the proposed new contract that's already been approved by the teachers, she said. “If the board votes it up, that's fine. If they vote it down, we go back to the negotiating table.”

Nix sent a letter to Clark on Monday asking the school board to meet and ratify the proposed contract.

Fox ruled that the one-day walkout by the teachers was indeed a strike. The teachers had argued that it wasn't. But Fox also ruled that the existing contract between PACT and the school board “provides that no reprisal will be taken against any teacher for participating in a strike.”

Teachers who participated in the strike/protest were docked a day's pay. Nix sent a letter to Acting Superintendent Rob McGill on Monday asking that the teachers' pay be restored.

As to whether a strike by teachers or other public employees is illegal, Fox said that neither the legislature nor the Arkansas Supreme Court had resolved the issue. He ruled that “absent limiting legislative action, the bundle of negotiable contract rights available to public employees with respect to strikes is no different than that enjoyed by non-public employee in their collective bargaining agreements.”

Pulaski County teachers struck in 1996, and a group of taxpayers filed suit challenging the legality of a teachers' strike. A chancery judge ruled the plaintiffs hadn't proved that a teachers' strike was illegal. The case reached the Arkansas Supreme Court, which upheld the chancellor's ruling without deciding on the legality of strikes by teachers and other public employees. Justice Tom Glaze dissented strongly, saying that the Supreme Court should have ruled on the merits of the case. He wrote:

“This issue concerning the validity of striking school teachers has now occurred at least twice in Pulaski County since I have served on this court. [Little Rock teachers had struck a few years earlier.] Teachers, students, parents, and taxpayers should be apprised concerning the validity of such strikes, so when a dispute arises again, the participating parties can pursue what they know is a lawful course of action and Arkansas citizens can predictably measure its outcome. Until this court grapples with and decides whether teachers may strike against their public employer, confusion and uncertainty will continue to prevail in the management of our schools.”

Clark said the school board hadn't yet done anything in response to the court ruling. The vote to end recognition of the union was 4 to 3, and some board members were strongly opposed to the action.

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