"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
“We cannot give them [unionized teachers] the leeway to disobey direct orders. This turmoil will escalate IF AND ONLY IF we do not show the forcefulness and resolve to ‘nip it in the bud.' We need the attitude of Dirty Harry, almost hoping for direct insubordination. That is, ‘Go ahead, make my day.'It will only happen once! When you cut one player from your basketball squad, the rest of the team suddenly pays very close attention.”
Charlie Wood, vice president of the Pulaski County School Board, wrote that in a memo to Robert McGill, who was then the interim superintendent of the Pulaski County School District, and sent copies to fellow board members. Wood was aggrieved, he said, that union teachers were conducting union business during school hours. “Some teachers have even used students to carry union materials back and forth. This is inappropriate, and needs to stop immediately. … In my opinion, the way to deal with such presumption is with FIRM STRENGTH. I would like an announcement to all teachers saying that the first offense (of handling union business during school hours) will be immediate suspension. Then the second offense will be termination.”
No such announcement was made, possibly because the tactics Wood proposed seemed to be in violation of the school district's contract with its teachers. The teachers' union, the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers (PACT), predictably got hold of the “Dirty Harry” e-mail and was predictably outraged. Wood was characteristically unapologetic. The union considers him its enemy, he says, because he tells the public about union abuses ? about the number of employee grievances filed in Pulaski County being far more than in districts that don't negotiate with teachers unions, about the union defending bad teachers, about teacher contracts that allow teachers to take 50 to 75 leave days in a year.
There are many strong differences of opinion within the Pulaski County School District ? between teachers and board members, between board members and administrators, between teachers and administrators, between board members and board members, between secessionist patrons and those who'd rather keep the district united, between races. Yet everyone claims, with apparent sincerity, to have the best interests of the students at heart, and most everyone talks about the need for co-operation. Here again, though, Wood is blunt. In an e-mail to fellow Board member Danny Gilliland, explaining why he wouldn't support Gilliland for board president, Wood wrote:
“You were quoted more than once criticizing the Board for our lack of unity or co-operation, but I think that was a ‘cheap shot' because it was really directed at those of us who had opposite viewpoints from yours. Every time I read that ‘WE' need to cooperate, I had this thought: ‘Well, if you want “cooperation,” that should be easily within your grasp to fix. All you need to do is come over to my side.' … Your comments sounded good on the surface, but what you were really doing was criticizing our right to disagree and vote differently, which is just politics. Having honest differences of opinion (then having the courage to ACT UPON THEM) is just part of democracy. We don't need to muzzle that.”
Despite this plain talk, Wood and Gilliland are allies in the biggest school-district fight of the moment. Both are anti-union, and part of a four-member board majority that voted to stop recognizing PACT as the bargaining agent for teachers. (The board did the same to a union of non-teaching employees ? bus drivers and such.) PACT has been in the district for 40 years, and has bargained for the teachers for 20. After the board voted to stop recognizing the union, teachers held a one-day work stoppage. The union also has gone to circuit court, filing a breach-of-contract suit against the board. A judge has ordered the two sides to sit down together and mediate their differences. Good luck with that, as the saying goes.
Pulaski County may not be the most strife-ridden school district in the country, but it's easy to get that impression. What's going on in the district, besides the war over the teachers union?
• The interim superintendent, McGill, has just resigned to work for a charter school, after he was embarrassingly passed over for the permanent superintendent's job. The board had spent $26,000 on a nationwide search for a new superintendent, and had supposedly narrowed the field to two finalists, McGill, who is white, and an out-of-state applicant who is black. The out-of-stater withdrew, leaving only McGill. Rather than hire McGill, the board voted to start the search again. Only Wood dissented.
• McGill was accused of making a racially insensitive remark. An investigation found no basis for the charge. Last week, Wood called for another investigation, to find out who leaked a copy of the investigative report to a member of the Jacksonville NAACP. The Board granted his motion 4 to 3. Wood and Board Secretary Gwen Williams, who are often at odds, exchanged heated words, Williams accusing Wood of spreading rumors that she was the member who leaked the report. Williams is black, Wood white.
• A federal court is studying whether the district has substantially complied with its desegregation plan and should therefore be released from further court supervision in a 27-year-old desegregation case. Black plaintiffs say the district is not in compliance.
• Jacksonville residents continue to seek withdrawal from the County District and formation of a new district of their own. After considerable contention over the issue, the County Board has tentatively agreed with the secessionists, but has said it will do nothing until the desegregation issue is settled.
For all of Wood's fiery anti-union talk, the union may hate board chairman Tim Clark even more. They expected more of Clark. Marty Nix, president of PACT, says, “If you'd told me a year ago that Tim Clark would act like this, I wouldn't have believed it.” She wrote in a public letter:
“Mr. Clark, once a friend to PACT, visited the PACT office very often. In fact, he urged PACT to move its account to the bank where he was working at the time so he could use the excuse of it being business-related when he came to the PACT office, presumably so no one would get the impression that he was a strong PACT supporter based on his visits. Why he turned against PACT in such a quick and mean-spirited way remains a mystery. Could it be because PACT refused to do things he wanted done. (One thing several of us PACT members learned from being around Tim Clark is that, when he wants someone to do something and it doesn't get done his way, he states, ‘It's on!' then starts devising ways to discredit the person who wouldn't do what he wanted done.)”
PACT actually supported and contributed to both Wood and Clark when they first ran. That seems particularly strange in Wood's case. An engineer for Entergy, he has the classic conservative disdain for unions generally and teachers unions particularly ? “They'll never be for merit pay. They want a socialistic system.”
“He didn't talk that way when he came to us for support,” Nix says. And board secretary Gwen Williams says, “The goal of Mr. Wood since he got on the board has been to pull union recognition.”
Clark admits to being pro-union at one time. PACT was one of the first groups he approached when he decided to run for the school board. “I believed teachers needed representation. Back in the '70s and '80s, unions were needed. There was a time when the administration wasn't fair to teachers.” But, he said, new personnel policies and fairness shown by the administration have caused him to believe “There's no need for a union at this time.”
He's also been disillusioned, he says. “We have a handful of teachers who are not focused on student achievement, but the union prohibits us from taking appropriate action against them. We have a teacher who failed 95 percent of the kids in her classroom. That's a reflection on the teacher. That's not right. … We sit here until 2 or 3 in the morning listening to grievances we shouldn't be listening to.”
He's found service on the school board, an unpaid position, to be more political and more stressful than he expected. He's received harassing phone calls, he says, though “I'm not saying these are coming from the union.” (Marty Nix says they're not. “We don't harass people. We're teachers. No PACT member would do that.”)
During a recent board meeting, Clark was calling down the president of the support-staff union, Emry Chesterfield, and Chesterfield responded, “Remember, your kids are at home.” Clark took that as a threat, and told police about it. Teachers have said that Chesterfield was only telling Clark to stop patronizing him, stop talking to him as if he were a child.
Nix filed complaints against Clark and Wood with the state Ethics Commission, alleging that both had fudged on their campaign-finance filings. That was a tactical mistake, possibly. The complaints were filed only after the school board gave the boot to the union, and the alleged offenses were fairly trivial. Clark, who received a mild “letter of caution” from the Commission, said the ethics complaint was one more injury that he'd received just because he wanted to help children. The complaint against Wood was dismissed by the Ethics Commission. Wood says he's considering filing a counter-complaint against Nix, which is permissible under the state ethics laws. Mightn't it be better for the district just to let the matter drop?
“The teachers union needs to learn that ethics laws were written for serious purposes, not to be used for vengeance,” Wood says. “Bullies don't quit being bullies unless somebody fights back.”
Wood, Clark, Gilliland and Mildred Tatum were the four Board members who voted to stop recognizing the union. Tatum is a longtime board member who's had her ups and downs with the union. She's black.
Gwen Williams, who's black, and Bill Vasquez, who's of Hispanic descent, voted against the motion. The seventh board member, Sandra Sawyer, was absent. She's black.
Asked about a black-white division on the board, Williams says, “The only person who's making race an issue is Mr. Wood.”
The board's decision not to hire McGill when he was the last candidate standing was “not a black and white issue,” Williams says. “The vast majority of my constituents were saying to me that Mr. McGill was not the best-qualified.”
Sawyer says, “Certain individuals have made race an issue. It shouldn't be. Mr. Wood seems to believe there's a racial division on the board.” She doesn't see it herself.
Gilliland describes himself as “Not a union person, but not a union-hater either. The union has never been mean to me … A couple of union teachers have not been very nice.” Gilliland says he would have hired McGill as the permanent superintendent, but a majority of the board didn't feel that way, and that majority happened to be made up of members of minority groups. “I don't think it's becauseof their race that they voted that way.”
But for some reason, relations between board members are more sour now than when he first joined the board, Gilliland says. “It's been more of a struggle the last year and a half. Back in the beginning, we still had 3-4 votes but they weren't as polarizing. This union thing is very personal to several board members.”
Vasquez said that dissension among board members ebbs and flows. He'd thought the board was on the verge of ratifying a new contract with teachers, but on the night of Dec. 8, “It just seemed to flip. I really didn't understand. People sometimes get their feelings hurt.”
As for race, “No matter what we do in the district, someone's always ready to raise that specter. I think it lies under the surface a lot.” But the decision not to hire McGill was not just a racial split, Vasquez says. Although the public may have thought so, the board had never committed itself to hiring one of the two candidates who'd been named finalists, he says. “If we'd had both candidates there at interviews, it might have been that we still wouldn't have come out with a decision.” The motion was to reopen the search, Vasquez said, and McGill could have applied again. “When we find the right superintendent, I think it'll be obvious.”
“This is a very different district,” Vasquez said. “Because it's a doughnut district. We serve communities that are very different from each other.”
Pulaski County has three school districts: Little Rock, North Little Rock, and the county district, which surrounds the other two. It includes middle-class, predominantly white areas ? mainly north of the Arkansas River ? and low-income, predominantly black areas. It's the third biggest school district in the state, with 17,700 pupils, 44 percent of them black.
Twenty-two percent of the 1,500 teachers and administrators are black.
For all their differences, most of the board members profess to believe they can resolve those differences and get the district moving forward again.
“I believe that if we could put aside our egos, we could work together for the good of the district,” Sawyer says. And Gilliland says, “Sure it's possible” for the present Board to get the district on track. “We're just going to have to work on it, and concentrate on what's best for the kids. We're not there to be best friends.” Good thing.
But no matter how hard board members and teachers try, some problems won't yield easily, if ever. Nix says she was glad to hear the judge order mediation. The union wants to talk, she says; that's the only way to reach agreement. Wood is not so optimistic, declining to go much further than, “You do what the judge tells you to do.” A board lawyer made the point during a court hearing that what the board wants is to not bargain with the union. For the board to bargain with the union over not bargaining with the union seems a rather circular process, he said. (Most Arkansas districts don't bargain with teacher unions ? only Little Rock and Fort Smith, besides Pulaski County. North Little Rock stopped recognizing the local teachers union a few years back.)
And all over America, debate rages over merit pay for teachers. Charlie Wood has a merit-pay plan. A ridiculous plan, according to Marty Nix, but he's totally serious about the concept. “I can't see how anybody who believes in American values would not be for merit pay,” he says. “Lebron James gets more than all the other Cleveland Cavaliers combined.” Wood acknowledges there's a great difficulty facing any merit-pay plan, and that is finding a fair and accurate way to measure merit in teachers. It's a reasonable question, he says, but “I don't believe that in the teachers union case it's anything but an excuse. They don't want us to determine merit.” A way can be found, he says, if the process is spelled out clearly, if “good qualitative measurements” are used, if administrators are fair.
But even if no perfect plan is found, Wood says, “At corporations, merit pay is determined by the boss. In the end, you have a boss, I have a boss. I don't understand why teachers think they should be any different. Principals will do their evaluations. They say, what if you get a bad principal? That's life. Sometimes you get a bad hand.” It's easy to be philosophic about the other guy's bad hand, less so about your own.
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