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Lawmakers OK Legislation Allowing Ayes, Nays Via Video at School Board Meetings

Local school board members can attend meetings digitally, so long as there is a physical quorum, under a plan that has passed both chambers of the Legislature.

The House on Thursday passed HB2883, which allows local school districts to adopt a policy, outlined in the bill, allowing members to attend meetings and vote via video conferencing technology. The bill states that such a policy would only allow members to participate digitally if they are out of the county for work, a family emergency or military service.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, passed two weeks ago by a vote of 26-6.

On the House floor Thursday, the bill provoked a lengthy debate between legislators, with several saying it started the state down a “slippery slope” when it comes to allowing elected officials to shirk their duties.

House sponsor and Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh said the bill’s intent is not to give officials a way to avoid their obligations, but rather to fulfill them.

“It’s sort of gotten to the negative sense that what we’re trying to do is give excuses to those that have been elected to school boards not to show up,” he said. “It is just the opposite. It is a situation where, for instance, some member of a school board has a sick mother in Chattanooga and is faced with being at her side rather than at the meeting of the school board. It gives them the opportunity to do their duty.”

Still, some legislators said the bill would allow officials to avoid controversial issues and difficult votes.

“There’s probably nothing more contentious on the local level than a school board meeting because we’re talking about issues that affect our children,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Germantown. “So, if an issue comes up, this could be construed or used in a way where a member doesn’t want to show and face his [constituents] and use this as an excuse.”

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, also raised a concern about the potentially slippery slope and asked Fitzhugh if he would favor allowing such a policy in the future for state legislators.

“I would not,” Fitzhugh responded. “But, you know, I think at one point, this video thing will be so refined that we may be able to have a session whereby we are in our home counties. I’m not advocating that. I won’t live that long. But, I think possibly, someday we might.”

While legislators are required to vote in person, it is not uncommon to see a member leave the chamber and ask his neighbor on the floor to vote for him. Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, rose to support the bill and suggested that members were contradicting themselves by engaging in such activity, while insisting that other elected officials should not be allowed to participate in meetings electronically.

“I think what we have to remember is, to some extent, we do this every day,” he said, admitting that he was guilty of the same. “When we’re not under the rule, we ask our voting partners to vote us while we step out and go get a Coke or whatever we do. In many cases we do the very same thing that we’re now saying we don’t want to allow [anybody] else to do.”

The bill eventually passed, 58-35, with Rep. Jim Coley, R-Bartlett, present but not voting.

After the measure passed, Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, who opposed the bill, told TNReport he didn’t think Shaw’s criticism was accurate.

“Even if we get up and walk outside, I wear a hearing device, and so I’m always hearing what’s going on,” he said. “Sometimes a constituent will actually come and ask for us to step out and speak to them, and we’ll do that. That’s a whole lot different than me sitting at home, to where constituents can’t get to me.”

An amendment to the bill exempted Davidson County, in which Gotto serves. But still, he said, despite understanding Fitzhugh’s intentions, he was disappointed to see the bill pass.

“Everything the local governments do is under authority that’s given to them by the state,” said Gotto, who has also served as a member of Nashville’s Metro Council. “This is one of those cases where as a state legislator, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to give that kind of power to the locals to be able to do that, because quite frankly, I think their constituents need to have full and total access to them.”

The bill, which Fitzhugh said the state’s school board association requested and supports, leaves much of the details of such a policy up to local school districts, outlining only the circumstances in which a member would be allowed to participate digitally. An additional amendment added a requirement for the board’s chairperson to visually identify any members participating by way of video technology. The Senate now has to OK the amendment before the measure can head to the governor for approval.

At a media avail Thursday afternoon, Gov. Bill Haslam said he didn’t know about the bill, but that good government was about “the relational piece of being there in person to do it.”

“I participate in board meetings, sometimes, over video and you’re at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of understanding the context of what’s happening.”

 

That Was Then, This Is Now

Jimmy Naifeh, a 36-year veteran of the Tennessee General Assembly and House speaker for 18 of those years, is among the most vocal Democratic legislators opposing GOP efforts to limit or eliminate collective bargaining for public school teachers.

But this isn’t the first time the crafty Covington lawmaker has figured prominently in Tennessee’s tug-of-war between workers’ rights and respecting local school board autonomy.

He has, however, switched sides on the issue.

The legislation currently in the Tennessee General Assembly — the House version of which is scheduled for a vote on the chamber floor this evening — is an attempt to rein in or repeal the 1978 Education Professional Negotiations Act, a law that forces local school districts to bargain with unions when certain thresholds of teacher support are met. (UPDATE: The House on Monday put off voting on HB130 until Thursday.)

Under the terms of the 1978 law, still in effect today, when those conditions are met, a “professional employees’ organization” is awarded sole and formal negotiating authority to “(deal) with boards of education concerning, but not limited to, grievances, wages, hours of employment or conditions of work.”

The 1978 act was designed “to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with boards of education, and to protect the rights of the boards of education and the public in connection with employer-employee disputes affecting education,” according to Tennessee state code.

When 30 percent of teachers in a district demand a vote to be unionized — and a majority of those teachers voting in the special election choose a union to represent them — then that union is awarded the designation as the district’s “exclusive representative” for teachers. That role gives the union sole privileges to negotiate on behalf of all teachers in the district. With that state-mandated recognition comes the power to exclude from labor discussions with the school board any and all competitors and individuals who wish to negotiate alternative or competing agreements.

The Act passed when Naifeh was in his fourth year as a state representative. The Senate passed it on a 20-10 vote. The House passed it 60-38. It was signed on March 10, 1978 by Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who, according to a Tennessean article written the next day, “made a surprise visit” to a Tennessee Education Association convention in Nashville so that teachers could witness him officially make it law.

But Naifeh was by no means then the champion of mandatory collective bargaining that he is now.

In fact, Naifeh and then-state Rep. John Tanner were “viciously opposed” to giving unions the power to force collective bargaining with local school districts, said Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis, who was present at the debate and voted in favor of the 1978 Act. Tanner served 22 years as a United States Congressman from Tennessee’s 8th Congressional District after 12 years in the state House of Representatives.

“They tried every rule, everything in the book to stop it,” DeBerry said of Naifeh and Tanner.

Tanner didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article.

In audio recordings of House floor debate over the 1978 Act, Naifeh can be heard attempting to add amendments to the bill that were derided by supporters of collective bargaining as delaying tactics or attempts to kill the union-friendly legislation.

Naifeh in 1978 was a supporter of local control, and he argued that the state was imposing its will on the districts by forcing them to recognize and exclusively negotiate with a teachers union.

“All I’m asking is that you give the people of your district the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to have professional negotiations,” Naifeh at one point pleaded with his House colleagues.

But between the fiery debates then and now, Naifeh has done a 180-degree change of course.

“I made a mistake, and I have admitted that many times,” Naifeh told TNReport earlier this legislative session. “At the time, it just didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t think it was the way to go.”

However, he added, “Once it got in place and all, I realized that we needed collective bargaining.”

And if anything, the former House speaker is even more adamant today in supporting collective bargaining for teachers than he was against the idea in 1978. He’s often among the most incensed Democratic voices as GOP-driven developments unfold seemingly beyond his or his party’s influence.

“I’ve never seen anything more political in my years in this Legislature than what has gone on in the first few months, and I am sick and tired of it,” Naifeh thundered during one House subcommittee debate earlier this year.

Naifeh said he changed his mind on public-sector organizing after talking to school board members and his local director of schools, who told him “it gives them an opportunity to be able to sit down with the teachers and discuss these things in a very civil manner.”

“It may not have been a mistake then,” Naifeh said of his 1978 vote, “but today and even a few years after that, I can see where it was playing a role.”

Former Tennessee Education Association President George Kersey Jr. told the Tennessean in 1978 that the legislation was not “specifically designed for the TEA or its affiliates,” but would instead give teachers a choice about which organization could represent them.

Nevertheless, TEA has come to dominate teacher unionization in Tennessee, representing two-thirds of the 64,229 public and secondary school teachers. The other association that represents school employees in the state, the Professional Educators of Tennessee, has only about 5,000 teachers.

Jack Johnson, the Senate sponsor of the proposal to repeal collective bargaining and replace the system with a more open and less regulated system of communication between teachers and school boards, said he believes there’s little objective evidence to warrant continued support of mandatory collective bargaining in 2011.

“I think that it is clear if you look over the history of collective bargaining that it hasn’t worked,” said Johnson, a Franklin Republican who ushered his bill to passage in the Senate on an 18-14 vote earlier this month. “So, why he could be against it then and for it now, I do not understand.”

Johnson added that there’s “plenty of evidence where (collective bargaining) has created an adversarial and hostile relationship between teachers’ unions and the school boards.”

In fact, injecting a dose of political strife into how locally elected school boards conduct their affairs may have been partly by design. Responding to the suggestions that mandating collective bargaining would be a recipe for pitting teachers and school boards against one another, one lawmaker who supported collective bargaining commented during the 1978 House floor debate that “in some rural areas, tranquility and mediocrity have gone hand in hand.”

House records from that year reveal concerns about teacher input, and whether the bill would add to education problems or solve them — issues echoed in the current debate over tenure and teachers’ unions.

Then like now, teachers turned out in force at the Capitol to rally in support of state-mandated collective bargaining. They were “packing the galleries” during the House debate, according to the Tennessean.

Reid Akins, Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this story.