Oklahoma’s Teachers Unions Determined to Preserve Collective Bargaining

If union bosses succeed, they’ll nulify the intent of the bill

Big Labor lobbyists are working overtime to water down a proposed law that would give local public school boards the option of voiding collective bargaining agreements with their local teachers union.

Lobbyists with the Oklahoma Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers Oklahoma want state lawmakers to include a provision in Senate Bill 1530 that would ensure that local school districts remain chained to their collective bargaining agreements, despite unnecessary costs and bureaucratic rules in the teachers contracts that are bleeding school budgets and dragging down student achievement.

“That is the one thing that is currently being negotiated,” Julie Miller, deputy executive director for the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, said of the legislation, commonly known as the School District Empowerment Program.

If union bosses succeed in their efforts, it will essentially nullify the intent of the legislation, she said.

As written, the legislation would “do away with the whole bargaining process” for school districts that are granted an exemption, and free school officials to make staffing and budget decisions in the best interests of students. The proposed law is vitally important for struggling school districts because most aspects of school finances and operations are written into teachers contracts.

Oklahoma lawmakers have recognized the significant benefits public charter schools have over traditional schools: less bureaucracy, fewer mandates, flexibility with class sizes and exemptions from a number of rules – including collective bargaining provisions in teachers contracts – that can drain school funds and waste employee time.

So they designed the School District Empowerment Program to provide traditional public schools with the same type of exemptions from various regulations and contractual agreements already offered to charter schools. The idea is to help traditional schools better manage staff and improve instruction, Sen. John Ford, sponsor of the legislation, told EAG.

“I’ve had a lot of school districts say ‘We have a lot of mandates,’ and they point to charter schools that have fewer mandates,” Ford said. “I just believe in local empowerment. The local school board knows what’s best.”

Giving schools more flexibility

SB 1530 would allow officials at traditional public schools to submit an application, including a plan that describes how the exemptions would benefit the district academically and financially, to receive a waiver from “all statutory requirements and State Board of Education rules from which charter schools are exempt …” according to the legislation.

That means districts granted exemptions under the program wouldn’t have to bargain with their local teachers union, which would give school boards more control over the budget, school calendar, adjunct teachers, class sizes, employee compensation and work rules, and would eliminate some reporting requirements that waste district time and resources.

“It’s financial, it’s management,” Ford said. “It will save time … keep them from doing reports and give them some flexibility they don’t have today.”

In states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Idaho and Tennessee, various degrees of freedom from collective bargaining have led to massive savings and increased teacher accountability efforts in school districts across those states.

Under Ford’s legislation, exempted Oklahoma school districts would still be required to comply with the state’s minimum salary schedule, continue to participate in the teachers’ retirement system, provide health insurance, and conduct criminal history checks. Districts granted exemptions would also have to make payroll deductions for union dues and use certified or licensed teachers.

But lobbyists with the state’s teachers unions are leaning hard on lawmakers in Oklahoma City to include collective bargaining as a requirement for exempted districts under SB 1530, OSSBA’s Miller said.

“We have no problem, per se, with local control,” Oklahoma AFT President Clifton Ogle told the Associated Press. “But if you have an agenda-driven school board that wants to upset the apple cart, that part of the school board could get rid of the collective bargaining agreement, lower teacher salaries. All it takes is a 4-3 vote on a school board.”

The Oklahoma Education Association issued a Facebook action alert, contending that SB 1530 could “eliminate salaries above the state minimum.”

“More than 70 percent of teachers are paid ABOVE the state minimum,” the post points out.

If union officials succeed, they will undermine the intent of the legislation, according to Miller.

“There are not that many statutes that come into play to exempt … that are not covered by collective bargaining, the teachers contract,” Miller said. “That’s kind of the elephant in the room right now” as lawmakers in the House consider the bill for a third time in recent years.

Ford said he first introduced the School District Empowerment Program in 2009, and it twice passed the legislature only to be vetoed by the state’s previous governor. This year, he’s optimistic about its passage.

“We have a new governor that supports it,” according to Ford.

Miller said the OSSBA believes the bill “will sail out of committee,” but added that “we’re having issues getting it through the House.”