Cathy Koehler, president of the Little Rock Education Association, confirmed on Sunday that a major change to the union’s contract with the Little Rock School District is in the works.
Although Koehler said she has yet to see anything specific in writing from Superintendent Baker Kurrus, the broad outline that will be offered to the union appears to be this: The LREA will maintain its status as a local with exclusive negotiating rights on salary and benefits, but the terms of its existing contract regarding working conditions will go by the wayside.
“We will continue to be in conversations — as my understanding goes — about working conditions, but we will not have a contract or contracts to be specific about those working conditions,” Koehler said. “I fully anticipate that we will continue to be a part of conversations moving forward.
“There will be a general membership meeting at 5 p.m. on Tuesday at the [Arkansas Education Association] building to discuss the situation. Only members may attend.”
Teachers in the district are set to return to school tomorrow from summer break, although classes won’t begin for another week (August 17).
News of the change came first from a post on a Facebook page called “Our Community, Our Schools,” which is maintained by former LRSD board member Jim Ross and activist Barclay Key, plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit challenging the state Education Department’s takeover of the LRSD in January. Ross said he learned of the change through “a random email … in a collection of documents” he received in a Freedom of Information Act request from the district.
Ross wrote, “sadly no one has yet been honest and up front with you. We understand that you will still have your union, and they are promising that you can negotiate on salary and benefits. But all the protections that you have had will be gone. (If you believe they will negotiate with you on salaries and benefits, I’ve got some ocean front property in south Arkansas to sell you.)”
Koehler said she had few other concrete details to offer regarding the proposed change. She said she was made aware of the plans last month, and that they appeared to have involved Education Commissioner Johnny Key — who effectively acts as the school board for the district — and his boss, Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
“We’ve had one conversation. It took place on July 8th, where I was informed [by Kurrus and other district administrators] that the Governor and the Commissioner of Education and the superintendent had decided that we would continue to be recognized, but were going to move to state standards [about working conditions] … and that I would be receiving a three page document laying all of that out shortly.
“I still haven’t seen it,” she said, regarding the document. “They’ve had their attorneys drawing that up.” However, she added, she was hopeful that the union could maintain a good working relationship with the superintendent and Key.
“I honestly have not felt anything but respect from Mr. Kurrus or Commissioner Key in regards to the employees of LRSD and LREA,” Koehler said.
But that may be a tough sell to some union members, and Koehler worried that the fact of the news being dropped today might make things worse.
“The frustration comes in how this has been put out in the public. We have tried to handle everything in a gentlemanly way that would have the least impact on our children and our families, but instead when everyone goes back to school tomorrow, this will be the topic of conversation. That’s not what we want … first and foremost we are concerned about the students and the families of the district, and we’re going to continue to work to that end.”
The union, and Koehler, are in a difficult negotiating position. The state holds almost all of the cards at the moment, and the Republican policymakers running the state are instinctively suspicious of organized labor, if not outright hostile. Combine that with the financial situation of the LRSD — its budget is stable today, but it faces a $37 million loss of revenue in 2017 when a desegregation settlement with the state draws to a close — and some change to LREA contracts at some point has seemed all but inevitable.
The LREA has, after all, won significant concessions for its membership in the past. Perhaps most importantly, it’s secured health benefits that are significantly better than those of teachers in most other Arkansas school districts. But make no mistake: This is not because LRSD employees get a remarkably sweet deal, but because Arkansas as a whole continues to provide terrible insurance options to its teachers, far worse than most other employees receive in either the public or the private sector. Over the years, LREA has prodded the district to make up some of that deficiency with additional employer contributions that are well above the minimum amount required by the state. (That’s something that teachers in other Arkansas districts might take note of.)
Now, though, with decisions about the district vested entirely in the superintendent and the Education Commissioner, the local union could risk its demise if it should take action that’s too strong, such as delaying the start of school.
Jim Ross (who is not an LREA member) said he shared the news about the impending contractual change today because “people deserve information” but saw the logic in the LREA president being discreet.
“Cathy Koehler’s not the bad guy here. She’s doing her job. I can’t condemn her for that. The problem is Johnny Key and Baker Kurrus,” he said. “The state wants to dictate down. It shows a fundamental lack of respect for the profession. Do what you’re told or go home.”
Ross also acknowledged that the LREA faced an existential threat if it pushed back too hard.
“The tactical question is whether you keep a union without any teeth and hope somewhere down the road you get, or do you force the state to destroy the union? … sometimes it’s better to go down fighting than to sit there and take it.”