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Sullivan teacher group wants another vote on collaborative conferencing

Rick Wagner • Jul 28, 2018 at 6:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — For the first time since collective bargaining began in Tennessee in 1978 and the procedure was changed to collaborative conferencing in 2011, Sullivan County teacher groups are no longer meeting about issues such as pay and benefits with school system officials.

The basic questions are: Was the failed vote to keep collaborative conferencing the will of teachers or a result influenced by the process, including the alleged lack of a special committee, the question phrasing, timing of the vote and alleged lack of a secret ballot?

The lack of collaborative conferencing, which took the place of collective bargaining, is because a November 2017 vote on the matter failed to get a majority of teachers (50 percent plus one) voting in favor of continuing and didn’t even get 50 percent of those who voted to support the practices. An attempt to reschedule that vote hasn’t worked so far, but the whole process could start over in October.

Teacher association officials said that Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski had the vote results, but she was at the Tennessee School Boards Association Summer Law Institute in Gatlinburg July 20, and said she did not have information about the vote with her.

Sullivan County Education Association President Jeremy McLaughlin and Tennessee Education Association Uniserve Coordinator Harry Farthing said the SCEA has contested the results, or at least tried to do so, because of the way the vote was held and the question was crafted.

For one thing, McLaughlin and Farthing said the vote did not follow Tennessee law because a special question committee was not formed to compose the question that went out, although Rafalowski via text indicated a committee existed and functioned. However, McLaughlin said no required teachers were on the special question committee.

For another, they said the question was confusing, with some interpreting it as asking if they would participate in conferencing rather than just be represented by it.

In addition, the vote was held around the Thanksgiving holiday with little notice from the SCEA and the Professional Educators of Sullivan County, of which Kim Blevins is president. It is the local group of the Professional Educators of Tennessee and had representation at the collaborative conference table.

Finally, McLaughlin said that the method used for the electronic voting would allow central office personnel to see how individual teachers voted. McLaughlin said he didn’t have a personal issue with that since those people also cut his paycheck and have access to his personnel record, but he said some teachers were not pleased with the mechanism and wanted it to be secret. The law also says it must be a secret ballot, according to TEA.

“I never got a reason. They just put it out electronically,” McLaughlin said.

School board Chairman Michael Hughes, the former liason for the process, said it was a secret electronic ballot when he was involved, but McLaughlin said a different system was used in 2017. Hughes in a recent interview said a paper ballot would be “labor intensive” but that no complaints came over the electronic voting in a different manner in 2014.

Farthing said collaborative conferencing must be approved to continue every three years and was in 2011 and 2014, but not 2017. McLaughlin said he hopes to schedule a vote in August or September. However, if that does not occur, he said the whole process can start again in October when the SCEA can circulate a petition to have a vote on collaborative conferencing, which must have 15 percent of teachers sign to initiate a collaborative conferencing vote.

School board member Mark Ireson, the liaison with the teacher groups in collaborative conferencing, in a recent interview said he understood some of the issues the SCEA has with the vote.

“A lot of it had to do with the way it was worded,” Ireson said.

Hughes said he was simply told “there wasn’t going to be collaborative conferencing” and that he was unaware of the issues raised by the SCEA. However, he said when he was involved, the vote almost failed and he remembers voting was left open a little longer to get more people to respond. 

“The year I did it, we struggled to get enough people to vote,” Hughes said.

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