Little Rock schools brace for possible teachers strike

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By ANDREW DeMILLO Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Little Rock school district is bracing for the possibility of its first strike in decades because a state panel this month voted to strip the local union of its collective bargaining power, adding more uncertainty to a system that’s been under state control for nearly five years.

The Little Rock Education Association’s contract with the 23,000-student district ends on Thursday and the state Board of Education earlier this month voted to no longer recognize it as the district’s sole bargaining agent after that date.

LREA President Teresa Knapp Gordon, who heads of the 1,800-member union, hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a strike and said members authorized leaders to take any action necessary. She also set up a GoFundMe site to raise money to support union members in case of a strike.

“Any actions we take will be about our students and protecting our students because that is our number one priority,” Gordon said. “If we take any action, it will because we believe there is no other way to protect our students.”

The threat of a strike has left school leaders scrambling to ensure that classes would continue even if teachers walked off the job. There are no classes scheduled for Friday because it’s a professional development day, but classes are scheduled to resume on Monday.

Superintendent Michael Poore said more than 200 people had signed up to be substitute teachers at hiring events over the past two days, and the district has another 300 to 400 substitutes in its system. The district and the state can also re-deploy about 200 other employees as teachers if a strike occurs.

“We’re just trying to gather as many folks who are qualified to be substitutes as possible and also utilize as many educators we have in our system or (the Arkansas Department of Education) to be available,” said Poore, who sent parents a letter last week assuring them schools would remain open in the event of a strike. The state has also approved the district’s request to double the amount it would pay substitutes during a strike, from $90 to $180 a day.

The district has been under state control since January 2015, when the state took it over because of low test scores at several schools. The state board backed off a plan to divide control of the school district after critics said it would return Little Rock to a racially segregated system 62 years after nine black students integrated all-white Central High School. That plan prompted demonstrations throughout the city, including a rally at Central High that drew thousands of people.

The state panel earlier this month voted to return local control of Little Rock’s schools to a board that will be elected in November 2020. The end of collective bargaining for the district was abruptly approved moments after that plan passed.

“What troubles me is this is run by individuals who claim they prefer local control. This should have been a local decision,” said state Sen. Linda Chesterfield, a Democrat from Little Rock.

Supporters of ending the union’s recognition have said more teachers will be represented by the district setting up a personnel policies committee made up teachers that would offer advice on salaries and other issues. The state board also voted to reinstate employee protections for teachers in the district that it had waived in December.

A teacher strike in Little Rock would follow similar actions elsewhere. Teachers in Chicago , the nation’s third largest district, went on strike Oct. 17 following disputes over pay and benefits, class size and teacher preparation time. And teachers in several states, including Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky, last year protested at state capitals over low pay and other issues.

Little Rock is the only district in Arkansas with a union that has collective bargaining power and the last time the district had a strike was in 1987. Students missed six days of school during that strike — the first teachers strike in the state’s history — before a new two-year contract was approved.

Aside from recognizing the union’s right to bargain on behalf of its members, Gordon said the union also wants a full return to local control as soon as possible and a wage increase for education support professionals such as security workers and cafeteria employees.

Activists calling for local control have also shown their support for the union, last week demonstrating outside the governor’s mansion chanting “Save Our Schools” and “Local Control.” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, appointed eight of the nine members of the state Board of Education. Hutchinson said Tuesday he’d be disappointed if teachers walked out.

“Certainly, every teacher has the right to join a teachers’ union, but the union discussion of a strike has sent the wrong signal to students,” he said in statement. “There is no other school district in the state of Arkansas that has a negotiated contract with a teachers’ union. Little Rock does not need to be the exception.”