Hell Freezes Over

It isn’t often I salute a teacher union for a factual statement to the press, but today is that day.

The New Castle News needed a quote for its standard-issue teacher shortage story and so approached the Pennsylvania State Education Association. It got this:

“It is not accurate to say Pennsylvania currently has a teacher shortage,” said PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever.

We’ll give Keever a pass for the remainder of the quote, which was “There is evidence however that a teacher shortage may be rapidly approaching.” History suggests the teacher shortage is always rapidly approaching.

Pennsylvania did have 1,137 fewer teachers in 2016 than the year before. But it also had 25,746 fewer students. That adjustment actually improved the state’s student-teacher ratio.

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Hardball Is a Game Two Can Play

The Brevard Federation of Teachers in Florida is unhappy with the school board’s contract offer and has instituted a “work-to-rule” campaign. That is, teachers will perform only those duties specifically required under the collective bargaining agreement and will do no work on their own time.

It is a standard union negotiating tactic, but every contract is binding on all parties. The 87-page Brevard contract is no different.

To my knowledge this has never happened, but suppose the school board also decided to strictly interpret all contract provisions related to the union?

For example:

* The union has the right to use school buildings to meet with members of the bargaining unit, but the meeting shall be “contingent upon such causing no interference with the instructional matters of the school district.”

* The union can place material in teachers’ mailboxes but “a courtesy copy of such material shall be provided to the principal and sent via courier or U.S. Mail to the Director of Labor Relations or designee.”

* The union can use the district e-mail system, but must immediately remove any objecting recipients, must comply with all applicable federal, state and local laws and board policies regarding e-mail, must communicate only during non-instructional time, and the e-mails “shall not be used for the distribution of information which is political, slanderous, defamatory, libelous, or in any way critical of [the board], the Superintendent or any administrator or other employee of the School Board.”

* Authorized union representatives can visit schools, provided they “indicate to the principal the purpose for such visit,” that can “in no way disrupt or interfere with educational procedures or programs” and cannot include “partisan political activity.”

* Site reps can use school equipment but the union must “reimburse the Board the cost of all materials used and any per-copy cost incurred by the Board” and the use “shall be promptly reported to the principal in writing.”

There is plenty more, and I doubt any union would want to be on the receiving end of a work-to-rule campaign. And none of this relates to the teachers themselves. Using the letter of the law to bludgeon your adversary might make the public question the law’s true purpose.

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After Christmas Truce, Nevada Union Dispute Resumes

As the dispute between the Clark County Education Association and its parent unions meanders through the Nevada courts, both sides continue their efforts to win over the hearts and minds of Las Vegas teachers.

The National Education Association’s Member Insurance Trust warned those teachers that their complimentary life insurance would be cut off and other supplemental insurance they may have purchased through NEA was endangered because of CCEA’s withholding of national dues money.

CCEA called the move a “cruel and cynical act” and threatened legal action against NEA.

Meanwhile, CCEA sought to bolster its position by informing members that their share of state dues to the Nevada State Education Association “bankrolls NSEA’s entire staff salaries and expenses,” adding that the NSEA executive director “receives $24,000 a year for housing allowance even though he owns a house in Las Vegas. Go figure!”

I believe most teachers don’t spend a single minute of any day worried about whether their union is affiliated with a state and national parent union. Every one of them knows the difference between $810 in dues and $405 in dues. That’s where this battle will ultimately be decided.

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State Ballot Measure Campaigns NEA Funded in 2016-17

The National Education Association no longer tells even its Representative Assembly exactly where distributions from the national Ballot Measures/Legislative Crises Fund go. Eventually NEA has to report all spending to the U.S. Department of Labor, so here are the union’s direct contributions to state ballot initiative campaigns for school year 2016-17:

* $350,000 to Arizonans for Fair Wages and Healthy Families

* $1,275,000 to Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools

* $200,000 to Colorado Families for a Fair Wage

* $1,120,000 to the Colorado League of Responsible Voters

* $4.2 million to the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local

* $225,000 to Educators for Washoe Schools (Nevada)

* $750,000 to Oklahoma’s Children, Our Future

* $4.9 million to Save Our Public Schools (Massachusetts)

* $2 million to Yes on 97 (Oregon)

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It’s a Brand New Year, But the Same Old Story

We return from the holidays refreshed and ready to take on new and emerging issues like… the teacher shortage crisis!

Egad.

“The 36,000 members of the Colorado Education Association are glad that an in-depth look at the looming educator shortage is finally being undertaken and that the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education have acknowledged the growing teacher shortage crisis and the need to retain existing educators,” wrote CEA president Kerrie Dallman in a December 31 editorial.

A few states to the east, Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith criticized her state’s board of education. “They seem puzzled about why there’s such a teacher shortage,” she said.

As usual, these alarms are accompanied by a slew of public policy recommendations, but never by an accounting of student enrollment and teacher hiring.

According to the Colorado Department of Education’s own statistics, in the last four years the number of students increased by about 46,000 and the number of teachers increased by more than 5,000.

Indiana in 2016 had 500 more students than it had in 2015, but added 1,100 more teachers.

The day after Christmas the National Center for Education Statistics released its “first look” report for the 2015-16 school year. Public school enrollment nationwide increased by fewer than 14,500 students over 2014-15. But there were more than 19,100 additional full-time equivalent teachers.

I’m not making that up. For every three new students, we added four new teachers.

That’s no teacher shortage, but it is the best way to create one.

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From the Vault: June 16, 2003

EIA Exclusive: Fired Louisiana Union Executive Tells Her Story.
Labor organizations are not always gardens of labor peace. A number of National Education Association state affiliates have had bitter contract disputes with their own staffs, sometimes leading to lockouts and strikes. When teacher union management and employees clash, each side draws upon its expertise in grievances, negotiations and, occasionally, hardball tactics.

The NEA-affiliated Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE) has had its share of labor strife, including a staff strike in 1997. Its recent internal difficulties, reported in detail by EIA over the past two weeks, extend beyond staff problems. But one incident seems to encapsulate the bitter feelings that have been percolating at all levels of the organization. Last February 24, LAE Associate Executive Director Guessippina Bonner was suspended by Executive Director Gene Neely, and subsequently fired by vote of the LAE board of directors in executive session the next month.

Now, for the first time, Dr. Bonner tells us what led to her dismissal, and why she believes members are being led astray about the situation at LAE headquarters.

EIA: Tell us about your background and how you came to work at LAE.

Dr. Bonner: I was first employed by the LAE in January 2000 as the Associate Executive Director and Director of Professional Development. In March 2001, I voluntarily accepted the position of Director of Legal Services. I was never paid for that position. I have a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Cultural Studies from the University of Houston, a J.D. from Southern New England School of Law and I have been admitted to the Massachusetts Bar. I have 20 years of NEA staff experience in Texas, Massachusetts and Louisiana.

EIA: The case against you that was ultimately presented to the LAE Board of Directors by Executive Director Gene Neely dealt exclusively with Legal Services matters. What were your day-to-day duties as Director of Legal Services?

Dr. Bonner: I would assign attorneys to handle member problems. I would personally meet with members to discuss issues, particularly when I knew no attorney would be assigned. I would meet with district administration concerning member issues and I would assist UniServ in drafting policy. This was in addition to a full load as the Director for Professional Development.

EIA: Who had the job before you?

Dr. Bonner: When I took the position of Legal Services director, Tom Tate had just been moved to become the Director for Governmental Relations. Tom had been the Director of Legal Services for 17 years.

EIA: Was the department in good shape when you took over?

Dr. Bonner: The LAE Legal Services department was a wreck when I took over.

EIA: How so?

Dr. Bonner: After 17 years, all the legal files were in two drawers of a four-drawer file cabinet. Prior to my taking the position, member problems were handled on a favoritism basis. Case files were missing or non-existent. There were cases that were not known until the bill showed up. I made Gene aware of this. I established a referral system from the UniServ. No case would be handled with a direct call from anyone unless the UniServ director for the area submitted it or was involved. This was new.

EIA: When you say “favoritism,” do you mean favoritism for certain attorneys?

Dr. Bonner: When I first assumed the position, there were 89 outside attorneys doing work for the Association, all white males. I went to Gene and pointed this out and informed him that I would be looking for minority attorneys as well. I did add three black attorneys and one white female.

EIA: And bills were being paid even though case files were missing?

Dr. Bonner: There were bills sent in 2002 for cases that the UniServ assured me were closed prior to my becoming Director in 2001. In August 2001, my secretary and I went to NEA in Washington, DC for training on the operation of the NEA computer documentation program. At that time we knew that our program had not been handled properly. Upon our return we met with Gene and told him of the lack of proper documentation, processing of member requests, verification of membership and a few other things. In November, there were four cases that were not in the system, nor were there folders in the file cabinet for these cases. These are examples of what I called “pop-up” cases: no records, but a bill would show up.

EIA: Neely’s charges against you insinuate there was overspending while you were in charge of Legal Services. Did he ever confront you about this?

Dr. Bonner: Yes, Gene was upset about the spending in Legal Services. However, he signed off on all bills. It wasn’t until September 2002 that he began to raise concerns. September seems to be a magic month.

EIA: What happened in September?

Dr. Bonner: In September 2002, I began entering [into the computer] all legal services information for NEA myself. Once I started entering the bills, I found that I was able to keep track of the over 300 cases better and I just kept doing it. When I began entering the bills for NEA and checking financial statements, people became REALLY nervous.

EIA: Why were you checking financial statements?

Dr. Bonner: Actually, I was beginning to prepare for this year’s audit from NEA. I had requested files from attorneys dating back five years. One firm had shipped me five legal-size boxes. When I left, all those boxes were thrown in the trash. I was just beginning to really dig, maybe too much. I had gone to the Finance department and requested financial information concerning some attorneys the week before I was terminated.

EIA: What happened on February 24, 2003?

Dr. Bonner: I went to work as usual. There was a Post-It note on my office door stating that over the weekend Gene had gone into my office and removed the legal files and that Tom Tate was reviewing them. When I went to ask what this was about, [Neely] requested my resignation. I asked what I had done, and he said he did not have to tell me. I told him that I would not resign. He said he would be taking a recommendation for my dismissal to the LAE Board of Directors at their next meeting and that I was suspended with pay until that time.

EIA: He must have given you some indication of what the problem was.

Dr. Bonner: I requested something in writing from him regarding directives and actions, but he refused to provide such. His only further explanatory statement was that he planned to take the Association in a different direction and I did not fit.

EIA: What did he tell the staff?

Dr. Bonner: He sent a memo immediately putting Tom Tate back in charge of Legal Services and notified the staff that he would review all open cases to decide if they would remain open.

EIA: I assume the board asked for an explanation.

Dr. Bonner: The board meeting was on March 21. A board member requested that I be given an opportunity to present a defense. At that time, I did not know why I was being recommended for termination, therefore, on advice from my attorney, I did not attend. On the evening of March 19, I received a letter from Gene Neely by FedEx that said I would be given 15 minutes to defend myself. Also in that letter were four vague charges. I had less than 24 hours to prepare a defense and no clear charges. My attorney and I both sent letters to the board in response.

EIA: Why did you hire a lawyer?

Dr. Bonner: I retained counsel because I believed, and they have concurred, that my civil rights have been violated based on race, gender and age. In the letter written by my attorneys to the LAE Board of Directors, they specifically stated that “the facts strongly indicated that illegal discrimination may have played a motivating part in Gene Neely’s decision to seek to have the Board terminate Dr. Bonner.”

EIA: Were you told what happened at the board meeting?

Dr. Bonner: In the executive session, Gene presented no documentation as evidence he had given me any directives. I have no signed evaluation, and no written performance expectations for either my Legal Services or Professional Development positions.

EIA: The board voted to terminate your employment based on the four charges you mentioned. I won’t quote the charges directly because they involve the legal cases of specific, named LAE members. Nevertheless, the charges all focus on overspending in Legal Services. Does Neely have a legitimate point?

Dr. Bonner: There were no funds spent in Legal Services that Gene Neely did not have knowledge of or his signature of approval on.

EIA: Other than your performance as Director of Legal Services, were there other issues that caused tension between you and Neely?

Dr. Bonner: I was accused, although not formally, of being behind the “No Confidence in the Executive Director and President” flier – even though the person who wrote the flier told both [LAE President] Carol Davis and Gene Neely that I had nothing to do with it. In one meeting in January, Gene informed me that more than half of the Board of Directors believed I was involved in this event and that they had been calling him concerning such.

EIA: In your view, what is going wrong at LAE headquarters?

Dr. Bonner: There is little opportunity for true membership input. No committee meetings are allowed to be held unless the president can be present to control what is said. LAE has so much potential, but the Baton Rouge office and leaders have no idea of what the rank-and-file members want or need.

EIA: Some LAE members and officials will dismiss your statements as those of a disgruntled ex-employee. How do you respond?

Dr. Bonner: I have proof of anything I have said. If I can make a difference for the staff that remains, fine with me. I am not seeking employment in any NEA affiliate. I am tired of the struggle, but not so tired that I will not sue.

(Note from 2017: Bonner moved  to Lufkin, Texas, became president of the local NAACP chapter and won a seat on the city council.)

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From the Vault: May 27, 2003

Clueless Miami Union Can’t Stop the Bleeding. The United Teachers of Dade scandal is a fascinating case study of what happens when the “culture of secrecy” is finally breached. Stories that should have been known and publicized for years suddenly come pouring out in a period of days. It happened with the Washington Teachers Union scandal, and it is happening again in Miami. In DC, the American Federation of Teachers was able to skillfully put a lid on the situation, after releasing its own laundry list of incriminating findings. But, for a host of reasons, neither AFT, NEA, nor any other organized union affiliate has been able to demonstrate the same skill in handling the Miami fiasco. It has now been four weeks since the FBI raided UTD headquarters, and the revelations are still coming fast and furious, with UTD and AFT responses always slow and slapdash.

In its most structured reaction to the scandal so far, UTD released a question and answer document for members. It predictably states that dropping one’s membership would be the worst thing to do, that the union is solvent and that it will continue to negotiate the next teachers’ contract. “UTD and AFT are doing everything possible to keep members informed,” the document also states, which is patently not the case. The Miami Herald in particular is the primary source of internal UTD news these days. The lack of union openness is best demonstrated by the web site of the Florida Education Association (FEA), UTD’s state affiliate. FEA has a web page with “Today’s Headlines,” which the union suddenly stopped updating after April 27 (the FBI raid was on April 29). It resumed last week, with the usual “Voucher Updates” and a lone, short item from Inside AFT on the appointing of an administrator over UTD.

The UTD question and answer document also states, “What has been reported so far are accounts pieced together by the media which do not contain all of the facts.” This is an understatement, as the more facts are uncovered, the worse the picture gets for UTD. This week we learned:

* UTD President Pat Tornillo “voluntarily” deferred his $243,000 salary while the investigation goes on. In fact, union insiders tell EIA that Tornillo was informed he might as well do it voluntarily, since he was going to be cut off involuntarily if he didn’t.

* The union failed to pay the supplemental insurance premiums of 4,500 members. The delinquent fees total about $300,000. The insurance money is supposed to go to the Public Employee Services Company (PESCO), of which UTD is a primary stockholder. Former union officers say the money was diverted to the general fund to make payroll, but the new AFT administrators say they don’t know where the money went.

* Tornillo and other senior UTD officials set up a secret pension fund for themselves. Had he collected, Tornillo would have received $663,000 from this fund, in addition to his other retirement benefits. Former union officers say the fund was drained to pay cost overruns on the construction of the new UTD headquarters building and that it never appeared in the union’s annual budget. The new AFT administrators say they did not know the fund existed.

* The union paid $22,510 plus an $1,800 expense account to Tornillo’s personal maid. The maid was listed as a UTD employee, though she did no work at the union building. “I didn’t know she was on the payroll,” said a UTD spokesperson.

Ignorance and apathy are not the hallmarks of a successful organization, and the plans of union higher-ups do not inspire confidence. New AFT administrator Mark Richard told the Herald that UTD would be rebuilt from top to bottom, with a focus on organizing, bargaining and political activism.

Because God knows that hasn’t been enough of that going on.

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