Approximately 60 percent of all Tennessee teachers are in districts engaging in PECCA, the state’s collaborative conferencing law. TEA locals have won the vast majority of conferencing seats in PECCA elections, a sure sign teachers know which organization best represents them. As more local associations organize votes and win, the strength of the 2011 Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act is being put to the test.
Recently, TEA and the Bedford County EA successfully challenged the district when it failed to pay for teacher insurance at the level agreed upon in the PECCA MOU, winning Bedford County teachers reimbursement for the extra money they had to put toward insurance.
Another important test is unfolding in Maury County. After numerous failed attempts with collaborative conferencing, Maury County Education Association has filed a lawsuit in Chancery Court against the local Board of Education, alleging the board did not follow Tennessee collaborative conferencing law and failed to act in good-faith collaborative conferencing. At the board’s insistence, Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) was added to the case as a co-defendant.
According to the complaint, Maury County Schools Director Chris Marczak employed a “Google Docs” document for a poll November 20-30, 2015, designed to determine whether the majority of eligible professional employees wanted to engage in collaborative conferencing. Polling data revealed that at least 79 multiple or unauthorized votes were cast during the poll, many within seconds of each other, and all for PET.
Even though MCEA won five out of seven seats to represent Maury County teachers in collaborative conferencing between the Maury County School Board and professional school employees, the MCEA promptly requested that a new poll be conducted using a procedure that would ensure each employee voted just once, providing valid results that truly reflect the employees’ choice.
Marczak later admitted in testimony in the case that the Google Docs poll had no mechanism for verifying that only Maury County teachers could vote and no mechanism to prevent multiple votes from being cast.
In addition, Marczak had the detailed printout of poll results showing voting patterns that even PET Executive Director J.C. Bowman admitted were “fishy.”
Despite this knowledge, the school board would only agree to conduct a new poll if PET agreed.
“Teachers feel betrayed,” said David Huebner, a social studies teacher at Central High School in Columbia, who has been reelected President of Maury County EA president. “We have lost trust in our school board and our central office.”
According to the lawsuit, “by insisting that PET agree if re-polling is to be conducted, the Board of Education assisted PET in a way that violates the requirement of employer neutrality and thereby committed an unlawful act under Tennessee law.”
The lawsuit also alleges that Marczak solicited professional employee feedback on a previously negotiated MOU in violation of the PECCA law.
“By soliciting the views or opinions of individual professional employees on mandatory subjects of collaborative conferencing, the Defendant has interfered with the rights of professional employees to be represented in collaborative conferencing by representatives of their choosing,” according to the lawsuit.
After the board and teachers agreed on a new MOU during a collaborative conferencing process in 2016 that commenced at MCEA’s urging (and based on a stipulation that MCEA did not waive its rights in pending litigation), the board tabled the proposed MOU, which included a 5 percent teacher raise.
Even though the previous MOU expired in August 2016 and the MOU was unilaterally tabled by the board, it took no further action relative to the proposed MOU, but proceeded to unilaterally implement changes to the terms and conditions of employment that are among the mandatory subjects of collaborative conferencing, according to the lawsuit.
The MCEA lawsuit says unilateral changes by the board include implementation of the salary schedule with a $1,340.00 per teacher salary increase (instead of the previously agreed-upon 5-percent raise); a change to twelve-month pay periods for all professional employees; changes to the manner in which pay stubs are provided to teachers; the authorization to school principals to hold faculty meetings after regular school hours in excess of the limits set out in the previous MOU; and changes to policies related to leave and other matters addressed in the proposed MOU.
The MCEA lawsuit asks the court to declare that the Maury County Board of Education acted in contravention of its duty to engage in good faith collaborative conferencing, and to order the board to cease and desist from its unlawful acts, among other relief.
“MCEA membership has grown in the past year because people know that we’re doing the hard work and it pays off,” Huebner said. “We look forward to the court decision and are eager to restart the collaborative conferencing process. In the end, it’s all about the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.”
The Maury filing is just the latest in a series of legal challenges TEA has filed statewide regarding violations of the collaborative conferencing law. If you experience problems with PECCA or would like to start the conferencing process in your district, contact your TEA UniServ coordinator.