Flagstaff Unified School District’s (FUSD) board recently held a work session to discuss a proposed change to its Policy Section H, also known as Meet and Confer. This meeting was a response to concerns the Flagstaff Education Association (FEA) raised about the change.
Policy H requires FUSD to “form and maintain a district-wide employee communication system [that] must provide equal opportunity to all regular status employees of the district to be elected to a district employee representation committee."
The agenda for FUSD’s Aug. 10 board meeting included a change to Policy H that would prohibit employees who are president of an association group or local chapter from serving as an employee liaison. This would include groups such as the Flagstaff Education Association (FEA), the Flagstaff Education Support Association (FESA) and Arizona School Administrators (ASA).
The updated policy draft specified that “the liaison may be an association president should the representation group receive 51% of the total representation group to certify the association president be elected as the liaison.”
This amendment was originally listed in the board’s Aug. 10 meeting agenda, but the first reading was postponed for further research as members of the teacher’s union (FEA) spoke against it. Several FEA members were present to protest the change.
“This policy language is wrong both legally and morally. Please do not discriminate against association members, just as current policy, the U.S. constitution, fairness, privacy and decency demand,” FEA member Travis Doerfler said in a public comment.
FUSD board member Christine Fredericks gave time to further review existing policies and gain input from FEA as reasons for moving to table the reading.
“We want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity, that it's not just a monopoly by a certain organization or a certain individual...I would just like some time to review this if possible,” she said.
FEA president and certified liaison Derek Born said Policy H had been in place since the 2015-16 school year and had replaced a previous agreement between FEA and FUSD. This agreement made FEA the chief bargaining agent for district educators, meaning that FEA’s president would automatically be “the chief negotiator representing certified and licensed professionals," according to Born.
The negotiations committee expectation document included in the agenda for the Aug. 31 meeting said the committee created by Policy H “is tasked with the review and recommendation of working conditions as they relate to compensation, district paid benefit adjustment and relevant district policies and regulations.”
Born said in an email that the liaison job description is modeled after union practices and that “the difference in our newer system these past 6-7 years is that the district essentially pretends that none of this has anything to do with the union, because everyone has the chance to run for the seat. However, realistically, only union leaders receive the training from our paid staff to become any good at understanding the budget, pushing back on District policy/law interpretations via our in-house counsel, and all the other elements of representation and advocacy.”
The proposed changes, he said, mean that “precisely those who would ostensibly be most qualified to do the job are discriminated against, given more hurdles to clear.”
The changes were initially brought up on the request of an unspecified board member in response to comments the district had received.
FUSD superintendent Michael Penca had brought a few COVID-related complaints to FEA around spring break of 2021, Born said. He said he responded to Penca that as an elected representative, his responsibility was to advocate for the majority of staff.
“I didn't take it as any more than a few people who were the minority and thus were angry that we were taking the majoritarian viewpoint,” he said.
Before making recommendations, he said, FEA conducted staff-wide surveys and meetings to ensure they were in line with what staff wanted.
Born said the Aug. 10 policy change came as a surprise. He received a phone call from Penca informing him of the change a few days before the meeting, which he said didn’t give FEA enough time to address the problem.
Born said he hadn’t received a list of concerns, but his understanding was that the complaints had to do with people feeling their views weren’t being addressed.
Discussion of the changes were tabled at the Aug. 10 meeting and the board scheduled a follow-up work session for the end of August.
FUSD’s minutes for that session listed presentations from representatives of a number of groups, including the classified liaisons, licensed professionals and ancillary representatives, FUSD administration, FEA, and FUSD's HR director.
This was followed by a board discussion of the policy, ending in a recommendation to have the negotiations group present recommendations to the board, with the first update requested for November.
Born’s presentation in that session featured results of a survey FEA had conducted of FUSD staff the last week of August. It asked how staff felt they were being represented by FEA and whether the district should limit FEA leadership’s participation in the liaison positions.
Between 80% and 90% of answers to the questions presented were in favor of FEA and of keeping the policy as is. Between 4% and 8% responded to the questions in favor of change.
Born said board members questioned the survey data, citing a low response rate and that it had been conducted by FEA.
He said FEA appreciated having the space to present, but that past work sessions had been more collaborative, formatted more as a conversation where “we can present for a couple minutes but then we really can engage in and dialogue with the board and address their concern.”
Penca said in the Aug. 10 meeting that he had respect for past employee liaisons and that the district valued staff input.
“I think by working together we have fulfilled our common goals and we’ve addressed many challenges that we have faced in the past years,” he said. “The policy change that is being presented is an attempt to address concerns that have been brought forward by members of the representative group that have indicated their voice is not heard if they are also not a member of an association."
He also noted that the proposed change would still allow association presidents to be elected as liaisons through a majority vote.
Born said the requirement for an association president to be elected would be based on the majority of represented employees, rather than of those who voted, meaning that it would be more difficult for them to be selected in low-turnout elections.
This was “one of our biggest concerns,” he said, “and I think the unintended consequence would be that in many cases, association presidents could not serve, simply as a result of a response rate that’s less than we’d like to see.”
He said the change would conflict with district policy GBACA (Staff Rights and Responsibilities), which says that the board “shall not discriminate against any teacher with respect to hours, wages, or any terms or conditions of employment by reason of membership in the Association [meaning FEA] and its affiliates.”
“We really did take that as basically union busting,” Born said. “Coming after us, trying to make it harder for us to have an equal role in the system by increasing the barriers to participation. By saying, 'well only if you’re a union association president, then you have to meet this higher bar.'”
At the Aug. 10 meeting, Penca said the policy “is not excluding or discriminating against any person or organization… [I] look forward to engaging in the dialogue that is coming through from this presentation of the policy.”
Born said FEA had been given the rest of the school year to negotiate with employees and come to an agreement. The district will hold elections for the positions, after which the focus will turn to finding solutions. He said the board asked for regular updates (the first being in November) and that FEA will have through the end of the year to finalize its recommendations.
“I’m at least really glad that we’re given the opportunity that policy dictates to hash this out and come to a consensus about ourselves,” he said. “I’m still hopeful that process will play out in a reasonably productive way and that we will be able to bring the board some proposals to make this system better that they can get behind.”