KINGSPORT — Professional staff members in Kingsport City Schools will soon be asked to decide whether or not to negotiate their contract for the first time in the system’s history.
A movement to recognize the Kingsport Education Association (KEA) as the sole representative in a bargaining process with the Kingsport Board of Education has cleared its first hurdle and will soon be put to a vote before the entire professional staff.
The vote is expected before teachers and students leave for holiday break on Dec. 19.
“I don’t think there’s any one big issue driving the situation,” said KEA President Mark Wyatt. “Teachers see it as an opportunity to have some input into some of the things the system is facing and a great way to help better our system, better the working conditions, better our community and better student performance.”
The recognition election is open to all professional employees who hold a teaching certificate, including the system’s principals and administrators. Currently, that adds up to 525 eligible voters, according to KCS Communications Director Amy Greear.
According to the system’s records, 296 of Kingsport’s teaching staff and four non-teaching personnel are members of the KEA, a local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA).
“We are an association. As part of that, we have the legal right to negotiate our contract. It had been awhile since we checked to see if the certificated teachers wanted to do that. We decided this year to see what the interest was in that,” Wyatt said.
Earlier this month, KEA distributed cards to certificated staff to determine whether or not they had the required support to call for the recognition vote.
“We had well over the 30 percent. We got up to 45 percent of the cards returned, which is simply saying ‘I want to at least vote’ on whether or not to pursue the bargaining process, and that’s where we are,” Wyatt said.
A three-person committee — Marie Ketron representing the KEA, Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Delores Richmond representing the BOE, and former Kingsport Mayor Jeanette Blazier as an independent third party — is working to finalize the details of how the election will be run.
“They’re working to put together the whole nuts and bolts of the voting process — the date, the location, how it’s going to be manned and secured, and how it’s going to be counted,” Wyatt said.
While many details still have to be worked out, Wyatt said one thing is certain: The vote will be an anonymous one, conducted by secret ballot.
A yes vote by 50 percent plus one of those who participate in the election would bind the Kingsport school board to negotiate its professional contract with teachers represented by the KEA. Items that would have to be negotiated, based on state law, include: salary and benefits, working conditions, and student discipline procedures.
The Kingsport BOE has scheduled a called meeting on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Kingsport City Schools Central Office to approve a resolution urging professionals to vote against the recognition election proposal.
“We will be encouraging everyone to vote,” Kingsport BOE President Susan Lodal said, explaining that not voting is, in effect, a yes vote for bargaining.
“Our goal will be to provide more information to the teachers — they’ll be obviously getting information from the education association — to explain the other side of the story,” she said.
Lodal and Kingsport BOE member Wally Boyd said any attempt to identify what prompted the vote would be nothing more than a guess at this point.
“As our mandates continue to rise at a rapid rate, and as public education in the United States is being attacked, I can certainly understand where frustrations may be coming from,” Lodal said.
However, given those things and the funding challenges the system faces, Lodal said it’s more important than ever that everyone pull together.
“I strongly feel — and I think the rest of the board will feel also — that the only way we’re going to achieve those goals as the mandates increase and the Tennessee Diploma Project comes into place is by working together as we have over the years,” Lodal said. “And my concern is that anything that could potentially cause an adversarial relationship is not in the best interest of our students or our community.”
Wyatt agreed teachers do have a lot of things “being put on their plate” but said it’s unfair to assume that initiating a bargaining process would cause the relationship to become adversarial.
“They’ve already assumed it’s going to be an adversarial relationship. That’s not the way we want to come into it at all,” he said. “We’re looking at it as a possibility for there to be even better communication between staff and administration.
“We see it as an opportunity to get information into the system and to get feedback from the system that will help all of us better serve our students and our community and improve student performance in our school system.”
Board members say they simply don’t see what teachers have to gain by negotiating the contract, pointing to statistics that show that five of the six systems with the highest weighted average salary — Kingsport City Schools rank fifth in the state — do not negotiate contracts.
“If I felt like a bargaining unit would help teachers, I would be for it. I feel like it would do just the opposite. I don’t feel like it would help them at all. I feel like it would complicate their lives. and I don’t think it would do anything for the relationship that we have now,” Boyd said.
By contrast, the same statistics reveal that the six systems with the highest weighted average insurance benefits do negotiate their contracts. And the majority of systems in the state — 90 of the 136 school systems — engage in some form of collective bargaining process with their teachers.
Rogersville City School teachers recently voted to authorize its teachers union to negotiate on their behalf, making Kingsport and Bristol City Schools the only two systems in Sullivan, Hawkins and Washington counties that do not negotiate teachers’ contracts.
“This call for an election shows me that there is a frustration,” Boyd said. “There is either a feeling of no one is listening to us, no one cares about us or we don’t trust somebody, and we take that very seriously.”
For everyone’s sake, Wyatt hopes the message is clear.
“No matter what happens with the vote,” he said, “I think it will send a message that the teachers need to be listened to and they need to find out what’s going on with them.”