Education
8:33 am
Tue February 11, 2014

Austin ISD and Education Union at Odds Over Teacher Contracts

Update: Education Austin, the teachers union that represents around 1,800 Austin teachers, and the Austin Independent School District are at an impasse over teacher contracts. The two groups are at odds over contract length: the union wants the district to reinstate three-year contracts, while AISD wants to continue offering one-year contracts.

In a state without collective bargaining laws, it’s rare for a school district to have such a clear-cut process when it and another party can’t agree. 

 

“It’s been very clearly defined that if parties can’t reach agreement, the board of trustees then will ultimately engage in a solution process," Michael Houser, AISD's chief human capital officer, told the school board last night. The last time the district came to an impasse with Education Austin was in 2008. 

The union, which declared an impasse in late January, says it's fighting for three-year contracts for teachers and principals to build the profession and offer job security. Last night, board members reviewed district policy around impasses.

Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, says three-year contracts provide much-needed flexibility and development for new teachers learning the ropes.

“You don’t become a great teacher in a week, a month and one year,” Zarifis says.“Many of our newest teachers are dealing with our highest needs campuses. So not only do they have need to become a good teacher, just for sake for developing the craft and profession, but they also have added burden of a high needs campus which even some of best of our teachers struggle with.”

According to school board members, one-year contracts give the district more flexibility when it comes to staffing levels, especially when it needs to balance its budget.  The district switched from three to one-year contracts in 2011, the same year it laid off more than one thousand district employees. 

“When we began reissuing contracts, we just simply could not afford long term commitment any longer," says Houser. "That really has not changed."

Instead, the district says its financial forecast is expected to see declines in enrollment and funding, increases in employee health care benefits, as well as increased costs for things like electricity and gas. 

"Therefore, due to anticipated revenue reductions and increasing budget pressures, the district is not in a position to absorb the financial risks associated with maintaining longer term staffing agreements." says AISD's CFO Nicole Conley in a letter to Houser.

Joy Baskin with the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) says one-year contracts are more beneficial for school districts.

“If a school district enters into multiple year contract, in fact, the school district is making a multiple year contract, but the teacher is not,” Baskin says. “Even if teacher signs a three-year contracts, every year, over the summer, that teacher would have right and opportunity to resign the contract.”

Plus, when a district needs to get out of a multiple-year contract, whether it be because of poor performance or budget issues, it ends up costing the district more. 

According to a district survey, Fort Worth ISD is the only urban school district in the state to offer multiple year teacher contracts, with no nearby districts offering multiple year teacher contracts. 

But Zarifis says it comes down to committing to people who have committed to the district.

“If we’re not going to commit to them that we are in this for you as well and help coach you and develop you to the best teacher you are, and as you can be, then shame on us as administration, and shame on the district for not committing to the teachers as much as they have committed to the district," he says.

After an impasse is declared, the school board president must appoint a three-member committee of board members to review both sides. Board Member Tamala Barksdale will chair this committee, which will also include Trustees Amber Elenz and Lori Moya. The committee will eventually make a recommendation to the full board, which makes the final decision.  

Board Member Gina Hinajosa says she's inclined to support the idea of three-year contracts.

“We’re bleeding teachers right now and we need to do what we can to keep those teachers,” Hinajosa says. “We don’t have money to pay them more, but we do have within our power to give them more job security. So I think we need to do what we can. We have an obligation and I think that’s one tool we still have that we need to utilize.”

The earliest the board could make a decision on the issue is February 24th, but board members say that is unlikely. However, district officials say a decision needs to be made before the spring, when the district begins sending out contracts for the next academic year.