Friday, May 14, 2010

WTU: Two votes, one fine mess

Now that District CFO Natwar M. Gandhi has certified the new labor contract as fiscally sound, it's up to Washington Teachers' Union members to ratify or reject the pact. Tentative plans (are there any other kind in this story?) call for a 15-day voting period to begin on May 19. Teachers will receive ballots by mail and have until June 2 to mail them back. To make sure everything is done on the square, the union has hired the American Arbitration Association to handle the balloting.

"It's going to be very political, and we don't want politics to get in the middle of the ratification," said WTU president George Parker.

It looks like there's plenty of room for politics in the other big upcoming union vote, the one for union president and other officers. Under WTU bylaws, the election is supposed to be held in May. But internal disputes are going to push the contest into June and, possibly, into court.

Get ready for a hike deep into the WTU weeds. The trip matters for a couple of reasons. First, there is a possibility that the election dispute could spill over into the ratification process. Second, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will be working with the winner to implement the provisions of the contract that --if ratified--will mean huge changes in how teachers are paid and managed. It will diminish seniority rights and emphasize the importance of performance, as determined by a rigorous new evaluation system. Parker signed the deal and has pledged to see it through. One of his opponents, general vice president Nathan Saunders, has been an outspoken foe of Rhee and is opposed to ratification. A Saunders presidency could make it far more difficult to implement the contract.

For openers, it turns out that Parker did not submit the signed petitions required for re-nomination by the April 30 deadline specified in union rules. His opponents, Saunders and Elizabeth Davis, a teacher at Phelps Architecture Construction and Engineering High School, managed to meet the cut off. When Parker disclosed this awkward development to AFT president Randi Weingarten at a meeting on Monday, "she nearly fell off of her chair," according to Saunders, who was in the room.

On Wednesday Tina Flournoy, Weingarten's assistant for public policy, said the April 30 deadline was "no longer operative" because of problems with the composition of the WTU's elections committee, which is supposed to oversee contests for officers.

Bylaws call for the committee, which is itself supposed to be elected, to have 15 members. But last year, only five teachers even submitted nominating petitions to run. Another attempt to fill out the committee added two more, still short of a quorum. By this spring, retirements and layoffs had winnowed the committee to four members. One of them happens to be Saunders' wife, Chandrai Jackson-Saunders, a school psychologist.

Parker asked the union's executive board to fill out the panel with seven volunteers. Saunders complained to the AFT and the Department of Labor, asking the latter to come in and supervise the election. The department turned him down.

AFT opted to intervene, but not to address Saunders' main complaint, which was that Parker was improperly packing the elections committee. Saunders said it has historically been at less than full strength. Instead, AFT decided to completely reopen the nominating process for the elections committee. In an April 19 letter to Parker and Saunders, Weingarten said the weak showing of interest in serving on the committee "raises a substantial question as to the adequacy" of notice given to union members. Weingarten told teachers in a letter 10 days later that the AFT would be "monitoring and assisting" with the formation of a new elections committee.

According to a timetable described Wednesday by Flournoy, AFT hopes to have a new committee up and running by May 27. Parker will presumably submit petitions to the new panel, which will decide who is a legitimate candidate and who is not.

Saunders said he is preparing a lawsuit, calling AFT's intervention "a sham" designed to protect Parker's re-election.

"She's got to get this knucklehead on the ballot because he didn't file petitions," he said. He added that there can be no contract ratification without an elections committee because that panel is responsible for administering not only regular but "special" elections. That would include a contract vote.

Flournoy called Saunders' special election interpretation "a stretch." She also said that AFT's concern with the elections process predates the petition deadline. Its sole interest, she said, is in a democratic process, not in the outcome of the election.

"We invite anyone to look at this process up and down," she said. "We have no worries about the legitimacy of this process."

Parker said: "It's unfortunate that WTU elections are marred by distractions and personal attacks. This is a non-issue."

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