Change to Iowa's bargaining law has real impact on these teachers

Randy Richardson was involved with teacher contract negotiations for many years as associate executive director of the Iowa State Education Association. -promoted by desmoinesdem

Last year the Iowa legislature passed House File 291. That bill stripped many of the collective bargaining rights that teachers had negotiated with school districts over the past 40 years. While the majority of school districts agreed to extend the existing contract or keep permissive items in those contracts, more than 40 districts stripped all permissive and illegal bargaining items from those documents. Most of those districts agreed to place the permissive items in a new “teacher handbook” that would provide guidance for how employees and school districts interacted. One of those districts was the Howard-Winneshiek (Crestwood) school district in northern Iowa.

Last year the school board and the outgoing superintendent forced the Howard-Winneshiek Education Association (HWEA) to accept a new collective bargaining agreement, which would contain only the items that were legal to bargain under House File 291. That meant the master contract basically contained the salary schedule and a couple of other minor items. The outgoing superintendent and two members of the existing school board promised “business as usual” with a staff handbook. The new superintendent met with HWEA in August to confirm the use of a staff handbook.

All was calm in the district until the December 11 school board meeting. At that meeting the board was to take action on the consent items on the agenda. A consent agenda is a board meeting practice that groups routine business and reports into one agenda item. The consent agenda can be approved in one action, rather than filing motions on each item separately. One of the items in the December consent agenda was the issuing of new contracts for athletic coaches.

When it came time to vote on the consent agenda, one school board member asked that all high school football coaching contracts be held (approving a consent agenda without an item is the same as terminating that agreement). The item was then approved. This essentially meant that the seven football coaches (four of whom were teachers), would not be issued new coaching contracts for the 2018 season. Coaches for all other high school sports would be issued new contracts. No explanation for this decision was given.

The board’s action brought an immediate backlash among students and teachers. Many students were upset. Teachers and coaches were unsure about their future in the district. In the words of one longtime teacher from the district, “December 12 was not a fun day.”

One week after the school board meeting, the athletic director, who recommended issuing new contracts to the seven coaches, delivered a short letter to the football coaching staff from the school board. The letter promised an explanation for the board’s action, which stated simply, “Each board member made the decision based on concerns from parents of current and future players and from concerns from other individuals in the Crestwood community.” The letter ended by encouraging all of the current football coaches to reapply for football coaching positions and notified each person that they could request a closed meeting with the school board.

This action occurred despite the fact that all of the coaches had received positive evaluations from the district. In fact, head coach Chris Lentz had received numerous positive evaluations from different administrators over his 21 years as a coach in the district. During the 2017 football season, the high school team recorded a 5-4 record and did not qualify for the state playoffs. While this wasn’t the record that anyone wanted, it was considered a good showing. In fact, the 2016 team had been district champions, and Mr. Lentz had been named the District 2 2A Coach of the Year.

Prior to House File 291, all the affected coaches would have had access to the procedures outlined in the old master contract. They all could have filed grievances. Their contracts had been “continuing contracts,” which would have given them the ability to ask for a due process hearing before a neutral third party. Instead, the new law gave them virtually no protections, other than the ability to meet privately with the school board. Under the new law, you can go from Coach of the Year to being out of a job in 12 months, with no explanation.

But what about the handbook and school board policies? Oddly enough, the district ignored both of those documents. Part A of Section 402.5 “Public Complaints About Employees” in the School Board Policies states “[…] Whenever a complaint or concern is brought to the attention of the board it will be referred to the administration to be resolved. Prior to board action however, the following should be completed: a) Matters should first be addressed to the teacher or employee […]” This was never done prior to school board action. The only notification received by the coaches was the letter the athletic director delivered one week after the board’s decision.

A little over a month has passed. One of the coaches requested a private meeting with the board. At least one has reapplied for a coaching position. The HWEA has filed a request with the district to provide all e-mail messages between board members and the superintendent about the decision to terminate the coaches. Most important, the level of trust between teachers, students, and the school board has suffered a major blow.

This is the new reality for teachers across Iowa. Teaching and coaching is hard enough without the threat of immediate termination for no legitimate reason. As a former coach, I know how difficult the job is when the community has their own ideas about how a team should be coached. Some will claim collective bargaining rights protected bad teachers, but that was far from the truth. What it did was give the good teachers and coaches the ability to innovate and take risks without the threat of angering a prominent member of the community, who may demand board action.

Events like what happened in the Howard-Winneshiek school district will only decrease the number of people willing to become teachers. While this will keep a lot of highly qualified young people out of the profession, the saddest part is that Iowa students are most impacted by such decisions.

Tags: Education, Labor

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