School Board Denies Union, Surveys Employees

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AEA president Vernon Liechti speaks before the School Board to request collective bargaining rights for school division employees. Courtesy ACPS.

On May 12, the Albemarle County School Board voted 4 to 2 against adopting a resolution to recognize and bargain with the Albemarle Education Association (AEA) as a union representing teachers and other licensed professionals in the school division. A dozen or so teachers and parents spoke in favor of collective bargaining during the public comment period, and many more AEA supporters, dressed in “red for ed,” filled the auditorium seats, but the board was unmoved.

Board member Ellen Osborne asked about the costs to set up a collective bargaining system. School Board Attorney Ross Holden estimated that the cost for the division to set up an Office of Labor Relations and pay a director, office assistant, and labor relations negotiator/consultant, and to set aside funds for mediation in the event of impasses and to oversee union elections, could sum to as much as $430,000. 

Osborne also asked about the current practice of twice-monthly meetings between division cabinet members and the AEA and why that amount of staff time has proved insufficient for AEA members. Superintendent Matt Haas commented, “I feel at this point that we’re the most communicative with the AEA that we’ve ever been. We get more information from them, more advocacy, than they’ve ever had.” Asked about current AEA representation, Hass said of 2,700 total employees, 550 have AEA dues deducted from their pay, and of 1,379 teachers, 417 have dues deducted (30%).

Board member Katrina Callsen asked how much of a raise teachers had received in the past year, and Haas reported a 5.2% pay increase last summer in July, a 4% increase in February of this year, and an additional 6% scheduled for this coming July, for a total 16.2% pay increase for teachers in Albemarle county in the last year. Hass also noted that 63% of all ACPS employees live in Albemarle county, and another 13% live in Charlottesville. 

School Board student representative Kofi Mason, raised his hand to speak as well. “I don’t have a vote, but I have a voice,” he said. “The people have spoken and the way to make change is to take action upon what they’re saying. The people actually doing the work know what they’re saying. Talk is cheap and they deserve a seat at the table. I don’t know what that would look like, but let the experts negotiate and figure it out.”

As board members described the motivations behind their votes, several worried that the language in the 2021 Virginia law allowing public sector collective bargaining was “unworkably vague,” and that the “infrastructure is absent.” Several noted that there are not yet established processes for elections and negotiations, and that significant time and resources would have to be spent constructing those systems, detracting from their focus on students. Other issues such as the fact that the School Board lacks the legal authority to raise revenues, and that research has provided no clear evidence that unions benefit either students or teachers, were also discussed.

In an interview after the vote, AEA president Vernon Liechti expressed dismay at the outcome. “I think we were a little bit surprised because we know that there was overwhelming support from both the staff and the community behind it,” said Liechti. “We actually used a Freedom of Information Act request [to review] emails sent to the School Board concerning collective bargaining since January, and found there was pretty much unanimous support for collective bargaining.”

Liechti was frustrated by several board members saying they support collective bargaining but “not at this time.” “That was kind of confusing to me,” he said. “They could work with us to make this possible. I remember asking in one of the public comments if they would join us in creating a task force to create a resolution that would work, [but instead] this is the first school board in Virginia to decide not to adopt a resolution. I take them at their word saying they want this to happen, but I think just kicking the can down the road isn’t the solution. Taking a policy of inaction does not lead to change.”

Liechti said that teachers are very disappointed that the resolution was voted down, and they feel as though their concerns are not being heard. “From the time we submitted the resolution on March 24 until they took their vote, I hadn’t heard from anybody,” he said. Board members Ellen Osborne and Judy Le both said they had met with AEA representatives, however.

“When the board members were talking about how difficult bargaining would be, [I thought] well, there’s a lot of difficult stuff that teachers have had to go through too,” said Liechti. “We were told, well, figure out how to teach all your classes on Zoom and at the same time focus on changing the grading policy and so many other things. Is there enough time in the day to do all that stuff? If you just keep on stacking it higher, we can’t get through the whole thing. Usually there will be a give and take, but now it’s just give give give.”

Liechti said there will be more opportunities in the future to pursue collective bargaining with the county. “We’ve still got over 1,400 authorization cards that are certified,” he said. “We’re not giving up.”

ACPS Employee Engagement Survey summary, showing overall employee engagement at 31%, in the 25th percentile of schools nationally. Courtesy ACPS.

Engagement Survey

The School Board and Superintendent held a work session on May 26 with representatives from the Gallup organization to discuss a recent survey provided to all 2,700 ACPS employees to gauge their level of engagement on the job. Dr. Tim Hodges, a consultant with Gallup, reviewed the results from the 2,010 employees who gave their impressions of 16 “actionable workplace elements” such as whether they felt satisfaction in their jobs and whether they felt they had been recognized or praised recently. The results were benchmarked against hundreds of other K-12 school districts in Gallup’s database and were reported as percentiles—e.g., a result in the 60th percentile means that a division’s results on a question were higher than 60% of all other districts in the database.

Overall, 31% of Albemarle public school employees rated themselves as “engaged” (highly involved in and enthusiastic about their workplace) while 53% said they were “not engaged” (psychologically unattached to their work, putting in only time, not energy), and 16% were “actively disengaged” (unhappy at work and resentful that their needs are not being met). The mean engagement score of 3.73 out of 5 equated to the 25th percentile of all districts surveyed. 

Distribution of ACPS employee responses to various measures of employee engagement, showing overall satisfaction in the 14th percentile of schools nationally. Courtesy ACPS.

The respondents also rated their feelings about 16 specific engagement items, as shown in the nearby table. Responses were measured on a five-point scale, with a five meaning “yes” or “agree” while the remaining numbers were not labeled. Employees’ scores were in the highest percentiles for the statements “My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work,” and “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person,” (40th and 34th percentile, respectively). The lowest percentiles were recorded for the employees’ overall level of satisfaction (14th percentile) and the statement “In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress” (18th percentile).

Distribution of ACPS employee responses to statements in an engagement survey. Courtesy ACPS.

Hodges said that because only 5’s were labeled as affirmative, the responses could not be viewed as a sliding scale, necessarily. “There’s a difference between a 4 and a 5,” he said. “We anchor the endpoints on the survey so a 4 is not neutral, and it’s not a positive—it’s almost a soft no. If I ask you if you’ve received praise or recognition in the last seven days, a yes is different than [various forms of no]. The next step is, we need to think about what would a five look like for employees.”

Hodges also summarized the results for three statements dealing with diversity and equity. “It feels like you’re doing a better job in terms of having the conversations about diversity and inclusion, but still have some ground to make up in terms of everyone being treated fairly,” he said. “This is good baseline data to build from. Next steps are to identify teams and schools with high engagement and look for opportunities to learn from them and recognize what’s working.”

Statements for employees to consider in ACPS Engagement Survey. Courtesy ACPS.

School Board members were somewhat dismayed by the results. “For a first-year client when you first do this survey, we’re slightly below where first-year people tend to be, is that right?” asked Katrina Callsen. “I mean, overall satisfaction seems like it looks good [with 54% of respondents choosing 4 or 5] but actually it’s down at the 14th percentile and that seems very low.” Hodges said there will be more conversation next year about upward trends, as Gallup has been retained for a three-year contract to study employee engagement. 

 

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