Sullivan collaborative conferencing process appears likely to restart in fall

Rick Wagner • Aug 6, 2018 at 2:30 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — The failed 2017 process to continue collaborative conferencing in Sullivan County Schools should have included formation of a special question committee, Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski and Sullivan County Education Association officials agree.

“We never had a question committee appointed by the Board” of Education, Rafalowski said. “We’ve never done that before, but we definitely will this time.”  However, she disagreed with other contentions of the SCEA.

Rafalowski said the late 2017 vote failed by a margin of 188 to 55, although because 651 professional employees were eligible to vote, it would have required at least 326 yes votes to pass, more than the 243 who voted. There is no way of knowing if teachers simply don’t want collaborative conferencing to discuss and reach consensus on items such as benefits or if some teachers misunderstood the ballot or missed it completely. However, she said in the last vote, in 2014, the threshold was barely met. 

Rafalowski also said she takes issue with the the Tennessee Education Association-affiliated SCEA’s contention that ballots were not as secret as they were in the 2014 vote and said she wants to move forward with the process in October of this year instead of dwelling on the failed vote late last year. That’s the same position taken by Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET), the other teacher organization that had been involved in collaborative conferencing in Sullivan County until it ended last year.

“I look at this as they’ll (teachers) come back in October” as a recent email from PET to the Kingsport Times News and school officials suggests, Rafalowski said. PET also says the Tennessee Department of Education should provide additional training and guidance on following the collaborative conferencing law. 

“Regarding the failed vote initiated last year, it is our position that at this late date it would be most expedient to begin the process anew this year with a new petition, rather than engage in a prolonged and contentious battle over last year’s results,” said the email from Audrey Shores, chief operating officer for PET.

“By law, teachers are to submit a written request to conduct collaborative conferencing with a board of education between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1 ... but there is no prohibition for teachers beginning to collect the requisite signatures for that petition even earlier. There is plenty of time for lessons learned from the failed process last year to be implemented and addressed during the appropriate timeline this year, if teachers in Sullivan County desire to engage in the process,” Shores wrote.

Under the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (PECCA), at least 15 percent of eligible employees must sign a petition calling for a collaborative conferencing vote, and the petition must be submitted from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1. If successful, the next step is for formation of the special question committee with an equal number of board members and employees. That group is to come up with the question and then a vote be scheduled.

As for other issues:

Secret ballot. “The vote was done the same way” as 2014, Rafalowski said of SCEA President Jeremy McGlothlin’s contention that some teachers were uncomfortable with a non-secret ballot last year just before Thanksgiving. The 2011 law that established collaborative conferencing or interest-based bargaining to replace collective bargaining requires secret ballots, and Rafalowski said she would never try to look at how an individual employee voted.

Call for another vote. Rafalowski said that McGlothlin and Professional Educators of Sullivan County President Kim Blevins met with school board member Mark Ireson, the collaborative conferencing liaison for the board, in either December or January to discuss the matter. Rafalowski said she intentionally didn’t partake in the discussion and didn’t hear anything more about the situation until an SCEA request to have another vote in May. She said Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-601 specifies what the question is to say, basically whether teachers want to start or continue collaborative conferencing and, if so, which organization they want to represent them. 

Question timing and potential misunderstdanding. McGlothlin and TEA Uniserve representative Harry Farthing said that some teachers misunderstood the question’s wording to mean individual teachers were being asked to participate directly in collaborative conferencing and that the timing of the vote, right before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, wasn’t the best time to boost participation. “I think it took everybody by surprise that it was that time,” Rafalowski said.

Potential changes in the law. Shore wrote: “It is true that, as you noted in your article, no group was really able to provide notice of the vote to our members in a timely manner. We will be requesting that the school board and special question committee notify us as soon as the parameters of the vote are determined in order to disseminate the information as quickly as possible to our members. We have long held that the PECCA legislation needs to be revisited and perhaps revised; more structure regarding the voting portion may well be the first portion that needs to be addressed.”

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