I now have the rest of the story on a report that the Little Rock School District had adopted a new dress code for staff, a code that prompted some complaints.
For this year, the existing employee handbook remains in place. It advises staff members to dress “appropriately” and in “good taste.” Department heads and principals may send an employee home who’s deemed to be falling short of those standards.
But a letter has gone out, signed by new Superintendent Dexter Suggs and Cathy Koehler, president of the Little Rock Education Association, the employees union, about work on a dress code that will become policy in the 2014-15 school year. Suggs had imposed a dress code this year, but complaints arose about disparate enforcement and Koehler got involved to work out some changes and delay implementation to give staff time to adjust.
In the meanwhile, the letter said that, as the district strives to improve its “culture and environment,” each employee will be expected to give attention to “his/her personal appearance.”
And what does the future dress policy hold? Among others:
* “Foundation garments shall be worn.” (This struck one teacher who wrote the Times as an unnecessary admonition.)
* No clothing with patchers or slogans about alcohol, cigarettes, obscenities, sexual references and the like.
* No jeans, except on designated days. (This has caused some unhappiness.)
* “Casual T-shirts” — faded, sheer, out of shape, inappropriately sized — are not allowed.
* No mini-skirts, halter tops, backless or sheer dresses.
* Only “dress casual” shorts.
* No flip-flops.
* No hats in buildings, except religious head coverings.
Some teachers aren’t happy that the policy was developed without assent of the membership of the union.
Koehler has distributed an explanation on her decision to work with Suggs. She said the most pressing issue for staff was coming negotiations on a new contract with the district, which says it has little money for pay increases along with rising health insurance costs. Her letter notes that Suggs had imposed a dress code and supervisors had begun enforcing it, a step he had the power to take under the existing contract. She said there were some disparities in enforcement. This led to discussions and a compromise way of moving forward. She wrote:
Working with administration, I was able to include in the Dress Code that it not become Policy for a year so that employees have an opportunity to adjust. In my mind, the worst thing that could have happened was to receive a directive saying as of a certain date all employees had to comply or face immediate disciplinary action. I thought it best to be “at the table, not on the menu.”
The formal dress code has been revised from its original form. These changes include removal of a ban on open-toed shoes and tennis shoes, plus some exceptions for workers outside the classroom.
Koehler’s full letter follows
1. Dress is not a negotiated item. The only place it is addressed is in the LRSD Employee Handbook where it states the following on page 38 “All employees are expected to dress in clothing appropriate for their profession. Employees must remember their obligation to set an example for the students, and that hey are the first contact with the public. Therefore, it is very important that the employees dress professionally and in good taste. When, in the opinion of the principal or department manager, they employee’s dress does not fit an acceptable standard, the employee should be reminded that they are being less than professional and then asked to change into more appropriate attire. If the employee refuses, the administrator may choose to consider this an act of insubordination and may inform the employee of this decision. All LRSD employees are required to sign an Employee Handbook Acknowledgment page which is then placed in their personnel file. Your signature indicates that you have read and will abide by this document.
2. In July 2-13, LRSD Superintendent Dr. Dexter Suggs sent a memo to administrators, principals, and employees at the Administration Building, Instructional Resource Center, and other sites under LRSD Operations with a Dress Code. Immediately LREA was contacted about specific items including, but not limited to, the requirement that men wear a shirt & tie, no open-toed shoes of any kind, and no tennis shoes. Through discussion some changes have been made – namely that Transportation workers and those installing technology can wear tennis shoes due to their job requirements. Open toed shoes may be worn, except flip-flops, which are not safe in a work environment.
3. Once staff school returned, employees began to be sent home on their first day back by a principal holding their staff to the Dress Code in the earlier memo, which they had never seen nor applied to their job. The problem is that under the Employee Handbook if an employee refuses to go home andchangethey can be considered insubordinate and risk losing their job based on an opinion. Disparity between sites immediately began to appear in how the dress code would be applied at the building level from one site to the next. Confusion about what was acceptable dress became a main topic of discussion, concern, and derision.
4. At the LREA Rep Council meeting on Tuesday, August 13, 2013, I informed Reps that LREA was addressing this disparity, including filing a grievance. In no way did that preclude use other avenues to resolve the situation. Multiple avenues are always used to represent members in any situation in an effort to get it resolved.
5. Since “Dress” is not a negotiated item and the superintendent has the right to impose a Dress Code, when given the opportunity to work with administration to craft a Dress Code came, I accepted. My priorities were to ensure that employees were treated fairly in every job category and that employees not be in a situation where they are being sent home based on one person’s opinion, if at all possible, without clear guidelines. My questions have always been “How can a member be held accountable for what their supervisor thinks, but has not communicated in writing nor any other means? What role does common sense play? Where is it in writing?”
6. As we worked through the process, we researched OSHA laws and Dress Codes for districts our size across the region. Some districts had a Dress Code in their negotiated agreement, while other districts had a Dress Code as part of Board policy. Every district we found had some type of Dress Code for employees. The greatest surprise was that the most stringent Dress Code was in a negotiated agreement.
7. Working with administration, I was able to include in the Dress Code that it not become Policy for a year so that employees have an opportunity to adjust. In my mind, the worst thing that could have happened was to receive a directive saying as of a certain date all employees had to comply or face immediate disciplinary action. I thought it best to be “at the table, not on the menu.”
8. Other areas I was able to advocate for and have included is the participation of the school’s Continuous Improvement Committee in the decision making process and the ability of employees to wear tennis shoes. An example of something that was not included was that male teachers be required to wear a shirt and tie daily.
9. During the past few weeks, there were a few members who felt that I should be very vocal on this issue and taken a firm public stand. On those issues that I am at liberty to do that, I do. That was not an option in this case since it is not a negotiated item.
10. As LREA President, I serve on numerous district level committees as your duly elected representative, some included in the Professional Negotiated Agreement and some not. If I have a question about something I do not understand or that is not in my skills set, I contact members who work in the area and defer to their judgement as often as possible.
11. LREA is about to begin Financial Negotiations on or before September 15, 2013. The administration has already signaled that there isn’t much available funding to work with in their view. We disagree. With the burden of the rising Health Care costs and it’s impact on members especially the classified employees weighing heavily on the LREA Team and Leadership, fighting publicly about dress would be detrimental to our mission. Members who spoke with me about the situation with dress requested it be handled with discretion and not in public.
12. Members have questioned why there wasn’t a vote or MOU. Dress is not a negotiated item so there was nothing to vote on nor a MOU to sign.
13. Members who have spoken to me are concerned about specific items. With the exception of one person, so far from my perspective I have been able to address their concerns to their satisfaction. The reality is that just as there is disparity among principals about what is professional dress, there is disparity among members about professional dress. No Dress Code could ever meet every persons’ concerns or point-of-view. At best, one could hope to have something that did the least amount of harm to employees.
14. For those of you who feel that I should not have signed the Dress Code, I understand your view. I must use my best judgment when deciding how to represent all the members of our association and employee related issues. It is a public sign to the community that LRSD and LREA are working to resolve concerns together so that our focus remains on students and learning. Yes, it could have been sent out without my signature, but then the questions would be “Did LREA know about this?” “What are you going to do about this?”, etc.
15. There are numbering and alphabetizing mistakes in what was sent out which is one of the things that will be addressed before this becomes Policy in2014-2015. The alphabetized items under #5 do not pertain to just employees provided uniforms.
16. If you would like to discuss your thoughts on how the process could have been handled in a different way, items you would like to be brought to administration for reconsideration prior to becoming policy next year, or anything else, please feel free to contact me.
17. As a realist, I know that I will not ever please all, but hope that I have done my best to serve your interests. Being a part of the process and solution seemed the best course of action for our members.
Cathy Koehler, NBCT