Teachers, parents, and alumni voiced strong opinions on a proposed teachers’ union at Benjamin Franklin High School’s public forum last week. But board members’ opinions remain a mystery as they prepare to vote Thursday afternoon on whether to recognize the union.
The meeting will be held at 4 p.m. in the school’s student center. I will live-blog it below.
Board members have declined to discuss the issue. Prior to the public vote, the board plans to go into a closed, executive session.
State open meetings law allows executive sessions for “strategy sessions or negotiations with respect to collective bargaining … when an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the bargaining or litigating position of the public body.”
The board cited the same exception when it went into executive session at its April 24 meeting, a few weeks after teachers presented the petition to unionize. Ben Franklin chief executive officer Timothy Rusnak and chief financial officer Allison Bent Bowler also attended the closed-door meeting.
The Lens sent a letter to Duris Holmes, president of the board that oversees Franklin, objecting to Thursday’s executive session.
Lawyer Scott Sternberg pointed out that the public meetings law is supposed to ensure that policy discussions take place in the open. He questioned how an open discussion could hurt the board’s bargaining position “because there is no union with which to bargain.”
Sternberg pointed out that when the board at Morris Jeff Community School voted to recognize a teachers’ union, they did not hold an executive session before their vote.
In a letter to Sternberg, Holmes wrote that it doesn’t matter whether the union has been recognized “if the discussion could compromise the Board’s bargaining position in [the] future.”
According to Holmes, the purpose of the executive session is “only to meet with outside labor counsel,” and such communications can be legally discussed in private.
Holmes wrote that the board would have a “full, public discussion of the issue before voting.”
The situation at Morris Jeff was different, Holmes wrote, because the teachers there hadn’t even decided if they would try to collectively bargain. But at Ben Franklin, the board has been asked to initiate collective bargaining within two weeks of verifying that a majority of teachers want to unionize.
Eighty-five percent of Ben Franklin’s teachers signed a petition favoring unionization. Among the issues are pay equity, timeliness of contract renewals and a fear of reprisal for raising concerns.
According to a Lens analysis, many teachers’ salaries diverge from the school’s pay scale. Rusnak has said the scale is just a starting point for negotiations.
English teacher Greg Swanson, the local representative of United Teachers of New Orleans, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers’ and parents’ support for the union was overwhelming at the public forum.
“We look forward to creating a new and positive environment in which we can work together with the board and Dr. Rusnak to resolve our issues cooperatively,” Swanson said.
Alumni opinions vary on Rusnak’s leadership and the unionization effort.
Tom Wagner, a 1964 graduate and first president of the alumni association, opposed the union at the forum but said the administration shouldn’t have allowed disputes to fester.
Upon reflection, he said, he has changed his stance. He doesn’t believe teachers have done enough to communicate their grievances to the administration and board.
Wade Rathke, a 1966 graduate and the father of a 2002 graduate, supports the teachers’ union. He said every worker has a right to unionize and this effort isn’t necessarily an indication of poor leadership on the part of Rusnak.
It’s clear, he said, that the faculty is unhappy.
“The easiest road to go would be to recognize the union, give them a seat at the table, and see what deal you can make,” Rathke said.