New day for Hamilton County teachers: For first time in 3 decades, they won't have a contract

photo Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford.

No paper, just a handshake.

That's what Hamilton County teachers can expect come July 1 as the contract they've negotiated with the school district for more than 30 years comes to an end.

The result will be the loss of guarantees acquired since 1978 through collective bargaining that govern such things as pay, working hours, even air-conditioning in the classroom.

District officials say their pact with teachers won't change, that the 79-page memorandum of agreement negotiated over the years still will be respected. Many of the protections in the document are covered under state law or existing school board policy anyway.

"It's not going to be tossed out. It's a good road map," said Stacy Stewart, assistant superintendent for human resources. "There is no reason to toss it aside."

Teachers could see change come negotiation time, but Stewart said the end of the contract wouldn't affect teachers' day-to-day operations.

Yet school officials say they are already eyeing changes to teacher health insurance plans. Superintendent Rick Smith says the district wants to save $4 million in 2015 health care costs. Currently the district spends about $54 million annually on employee health benefits. Rising costs and looming health insurance reforms mean the district will look to cut down on pharmaceutical spending and possibly merge from two health plan options to one.

And under the statewide changes adopted in 2011, local school boards are not required to enter into an agreement with teachers.

The county school system is one of only a handful in Tennessee still operating under a contract that teachers and administrators agreed upon via collective bargaining.

The Tennessee General Assembly moved to limit the influence of teachers unions by making sweeping changes to the collective bargaining process in 2011. Around the same time, Hamilton County approved a three-year contract with teachers, so the county is only now catching up with the legislative reform.

In addition to busting collective bargaining rights, the state legislature in recent years has tackled other educational sacred cows, including implementing tougher teacher evaluations, making tenure harder to achieve and shifting teacher pensions to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.

The 2011 collective bargaining law changes the entire negotiation process and does not require that a local school board enter an agreement with teachers. And it opens up the door for more groups to represent teachers, raising questions for the local teachers union, which must win a vote of teachers to continue wielding influence.

The state's old collective bargaining law, approved in 1978, required school boards to bargain in districts where most teachers had organized. The specifics negotiated throughout the years have culminated in the memorandum of agreement, which includes a teacher salary schedule, covers the formal grievance process and stipulates how many hours teachers must work.

Under the new law, teachers must vote on whether to negotiate. Then they must vote on who they want to represent them -- a union or otherwise. That means the local teachers union, the Hamilton County Education Association, could potentially lose its seat at the table during negotiations.

Officials say HCEA currently has about 1,750 members -- about 55 percent of the county's 3,200 teachers. And President Sandy Hughes said the union doesn't see its role changing whether teachers have a contract or not.

"We're not going anywhere," she said. "We've been here 68 years. We own this building. We still have a job to do."

And across the state, many teachers are choosing to stick with the unions.

Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford said 50 districts have held negotiations since the law changed. Of those districts, more than 90 percent of those elected to negotiation teams have been TEA members, she said. HCEA is one of 136 TEA affiliates across the state.

"Where you had a strong working relationship between the association and the district administration, that has just carried right through into this new process," Summerford said. "Where you had a more adversarial relationship, it's become more difficult under this new law."

But ultimately under the new law, boards of education don't have to honor the agreements of negotiation teams.

Still, in Hamilton County, where teachers and administrators brag of good working relationships, it seems unlikely that the board would try to pull off any unilateral changes.

Board member Rhonda Thurman said she hopes the change will speed up the negotiation process.

"It can takes months to get that done," she said. "I just think it's going to be a whole lot easier."

School board member Jonathan Welch said the school board will try to maintain a strong relationship with teachers, the backbone of the education system. But he said it's just too early to tell what things will change.

"There's the potential for all kinds of things," he said. "We just don't know what that will look like because we haven't seen it before."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.

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