Hamilton County teachers sue over contract talks

Hamilton County teachers sue over contract talks

March 15th, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Hamilton County school board attorney Scott Bennett

Hamilton County school board attorney Scott Bennett

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.

Document: Education Association complaint against Hamilton County Board of Education

Hamilton County Education Association complaint against Hamilton County Board of Education.

Document: Education Association's support memorandum

Hamilton County Education Association's memorandum in support of application for preliminary injunction.

The local teacher union has sued the Hamilton County Board of Education for its refusal to reopen negotiations on certain issues.

The suit filed by the Hamilton County Education Association claims the school board isn't following its contract with teachers because the current three-year agreement includes a provision to reopen the negotiation of items such as teacher pay, travel allowances, retirement pay and insurance. The suit asks the Hamilton County Chancery Court to issue an injunction to break the negotiation stalemate.

Though the current agreement between teachers and the board is valid until 2014, the contract says certain items may be reopened for negotiation annually, a common inclusion called a reopen clause. But the local board says that a new state law on collective bargaining strips its legal authority to negotiate.

In place for more than 30 years, the state's collective bargaining law required school boards to bargain in districts where most teachers had organized into a union. Proponents said it empowered teachers, while critics argued it held local boards hostage because so many items could be included in an agreement.

Last spring, the Tennessee General Assembly repealed the law and moved to a model called "collaborative conferencing" in which school boards must meet with teachers on some topics but are under no obligation to enter into agreements.

Hamilton County school board attorney Scott Bennett said the local board does not comment on pending litigation. But he did point to a letter he wrote -- now included as an exhibit in the lawsuit -- in response to the union's request to open negotiations.

While boards must honor current agreements, the repeal of the negotiation law "has left local boards with no legal authority to negotiate, much less to ratify any negotiated agreement," Bennett wrote to the Tennessee Education Association's staff attorney. The repeal of the law leaves "reopener" clauses, the issue at question, as "orphans of the legislative process," he wrote.

In the letter, he offered to seek an attorney general's opinion on the issue, but Bennett said TEA never responded to that suggestion.

HCEA is the local affiliate of TEA, the state's largest teachers union.

Local HCEA leaders directed questions to the group's attorney, Richard Colbert, of Franklin, Tenn.

Colbert said the law requires local boards to uphold their current agreements, including the reopen clauses.

"The refusal to reopen the negotiations is a breach of contract because the school board agreed in that contract that it would reopen these items," Colbert said. "It doesn't mean they have to reach an agreement on any of those. It just means they're up for negotiation again."

HCEA is pointing to the Tennessee Department of Education and the Tennessee Organization of School Administrators in its lawsuit. In a list of frequently asked questions sent to local school boards, the Department of Education says boards must honor all provisions of existing agreements and negotiate items in reopen clauses.

Keith D. Brewer, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, said the group is working on the basis that local boards must honor any reopen clauses until their contracts expire. The organization is preparing training for local boards and superintendents on how to bargain under the new law. That training, to be completed by an independent group, hasn't yet been finalized, he said.

"Our position is that they've got to honor their collective bargaining agreement until their contract expires," Brewer said. "Basically, that's what the law says."