The Albemarle Education Association (AEA) has formally requested the right to bargain collectively for teachers’ contract terms with the school division. At the March 24 School Board meeting, AEA president Vernon Liechti said that the union organization has secured the consent of a majority of the county’s licensed professional educators to negotiate on their behalf. They now must ask for the School Board’s approval per a 2021 Virginia law allowing bargaining for public sector unions.
“I’m happy to tell you that we have a significant majority of licensed professionals, 69 percent, who have signed an authorization card and are ready to move forward,” said Liechti in an interview after the meeting, “and we hope to get as many other groups as possible on board as well.” To proceed with certification, the AEA is required by law to gain the support of a majority of all employees in a professional category, not just of those who are AEA members.
Under union representation, the various groupings of public employees are called bargaining units, and the AEA’s initial group of “licensed personnel” includes teachers, school counselors, librarians, school psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists, and instructional technology resource teachers. Other public education employee units that the AEA intends to organize are “school support professionals” such as school nurses, bus drivers, and food service workers, and “administrative personnel” such as principals and assistant principals.
Liechti said that the School Board should view unionization as an asset. “We’re using this as an opportunity to help the School Board—we want to make sure we can retain the staff that we currently have and recruit staff to be in these sorts of jobs, because we’ve been seeing a massive exodus of people leaving schools [and the] professions,” he said. “To be able to say that [a potential hire] can get a guaranteed contract that they had a say in is a huge recruiting tool for a lot of people in comparison to surrounding counties.”
In its 2022-23 budget request, the School Board recently proposed a 6% salary increase for teachers, following a 5% increase in the prior year’s budget, but Liechti said that pay is only one of many issues concerning teachers. “While the raise is nice, with the inflation rate and health care costs going up, we may just be breaking even or worse,” he said. “There are a lot of other issues as well that are driving people out of the profession that we feel need to be hashed out in a contract.” Liechti mentioned employee working conditions, stress levels, and teachers not being consulted on classroom protocols as examples of issues propelling the drive toward unionization.
Now that it has been presented with the AEA’s request, the School Board has 120 days to decide if they will certify the organization as a recognized agent representing the school employees in contract negotiations. Liechti thinks the School Board would benefit by acting quickly on the request. “We are encouraging them to move quicker than that, especially because now it’s hiring time,” he said. “People are determining right now whether or not they’re going to be coming back.”
While Albemarle’s board has made no comment on the request other than that it will follow the legally prescribed path, Charlottesville’s School Board has actively invited its local teachers’ union chapter to become certified to collectively bargain. By contrast, the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) actively lobbied against the collective bargaining law while it was under consideration in the state General Assembly. The VSBA noted that, per Virginia law, no school board can agree to binding arbitration and that school boards have no taxing authority, so the bodies have limited ability to negotiate with teachers.
Still, Liechti is optimistic. “What we’re also hoping for is that when this resolution passes and we start engaging in the contract negotiation process, that we then want to use this as a model for other [local union groups] as well,” said Liechti. “Other cities and counties should be able to do similar things because it ultimately makes the profession better. This is new in Virginia, but it’s been normal in other states for years.”