Ramsey Proposes Public Hearings On Teacher Contracts

The latest compromise in the debate over how Tennessee teachers hammer out labor contracts would require that educators be given a chance to offer public input but would no longer enjoy collective bargaining leverage, according to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Senate Republican staffers are still working out the details and likely will reveal them next week, but Ramsey said Thursday he expects the fresh language from his chamber will help win over House Republicans who won’t commit to an elimination of teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining power.

“I think that will give the teachers the protection they need and desire, yet don’t have the unions in the middle doing those negotiations,” he said.

The new provisions, which Ramsey said are conceptual right now, would create a “policy manual” for school boards to follow before hashing out teacher labor contracts. It would require public hearings for rank-and-file teachers to air their concerns to the school’s top decision makers.

The school boards would have no obligation to follow the teachers’ recommendations. But Ramsey said the public meetings would keep school board members more accountable to the public.

That sounds like a “glorified faculty meeting,” said Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association.

“I can’t imagine any set of conditions under which this gives teachers a voice. Every school system already has the opportunity, and in fact, the right to have whatever meetings they want to have with their faculties,” he said.

The TEA, which represents some 52,000 teachers, said using the public meetings as the main method to work out teachers’ issues of concern would be “unworkable” and “create chaos” whereas using select union representatives to hash out those issues would be more collaborative.

“I hope the lieutenant governor will go back and think about that again,” Mance said.

The amendment would be the second compromise in an ongoing quest by Tennessee Republicans to curb the authority of the Tennessee Education Association and other teachers’ unions to negotiate contracts.

So far, the GOP caucus is split over two competing proposals. The Senate version of SB113, that Ramsey favors, would ban unions from negotiating on behalf of teachers. The House version maintains collective bargaining but shrinks the list of issues that can be discussed at the negotiation table.

The issue is reminiscent of similar discussions in Wisconsin and Iowa aimed at diminishing union power. Proponents say the changes are necessary to save money and dig the states out of budget holes.

In Tennessee, the argument is a philosophical one over whether unions are good for education.

The issue came to a head Wednesday in the House Education Subcommittee. Republican Chairman Mike Harrison stepped away from his party’s platform on collective bargaining and proposed amendments to give teachers more issues and more negotiators to take with them to the bargaining table.

Both attempts failed, and he abstained from voting the bill out of committee.

“If I had voted against it, the bill would have essentially died, but there’s always other bills that someone could amend and bring the collective bargaining back, and I feel like it would probably be even worse if that had happened,” Harrison said.

The Rogersville Republican is unhappy with both the House and the Senate versions of the bill, but said he could go along with the House’s softer reforms if he can add his amendments.

To Harrison, the issue is less about union power than it is about representing teachers in his district.

“Unions in other states (versus) what we have here are apples and oranges. If you don’t have the ability to go on a strike, and if teachers either have the ability to be a member or not a member, I think it’s probably OK,” he said, referring to Tennessee’s right-to-work framework.

Because he was the tie-breaking vote on the committee, the measure should have died, potentially ending for the year’s discussions about teachers’ collective bargaining privileges. Instead, Speaker Beth Harwell stepped in and cast the deciding vote, passing it out of the committee, 7-6.

Harwell, who took pride earlier this year in dismantling the House Education committee to break up the body’s heavy Memphis majorities, said she was not disappointed her hand-picked subcommittee couldn’t pull the trigger on the bill she helped craft without her direct involvement.

“If I’m needed to be called in to keep a good bill moving forward, I’m honored to do that,” Harwell told reporters Thursday. “I think every day we get closer to garnering the votes we need for passage. Every day we’re making progress.”

Tennessee Tea Party secretary Tami Kilmarx said she’s confused about what exactly is going on among House Republicans, and to what extent the bulk of their 64-member caucus will support the Senate’s more sweeping collective bargaining rollback.

“Senators, like us, feel like we want to cut the head off the snake and do away with collective bargaining across the board,” she said.

Ramsey was scheduled to meet with Kilmarx’s tea party group in Murfreesboro Thursday evening to discuss the latest movement on collective bargaining.