VCSD teachers’ union makes, perhaps, its first school board endorsement

VOORHEESVILLE — With its endorsement of Rachel Gilker, the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association has formally waded into the May 21 school-board election. Kathy Fiero, the union’s president, in a letter to the editor in last week’s Enterprise, announced that, for the first time in her 20 years as president, the VTA would be backing a school-board candidate.

This week, Fiero explained to The Enterprise the reasoning behind the union’s endorsement of Gilker.

“We looked at the direction the school district was going in and how some decisions were being made, and we felt that we weren’t being included in some of the communication and decisions,” she said.

Fiero said that it wasn’t just the recent closed and confidential search for a new superintendent that precipitated the endorsement; there have been communication issues with the school board for a while.

Fiero said that, for over a year, she has been trying to schedule a meeting — a contract right — with the school board to discuss various concerns that the union has had. “And the board’s response was ‘Well, even though that’s a given right in our contract … They weren’t willing to talk to us until after negotiations were settled,” Fiero said.

Doreen Saia, Gilker’s opponent in a three-way race for one seat, and the current board president, told The Enterprise — in her capacity as board president — that, indeed, the union had approached the board for a meeting. She said that the union was told if the meeting were to be about issues that fell within the parameters of the contract, then the school board would not meet until contract negotiations were concluded.

There is a chain of command in place for when teachers want to raise an issue, Saia said: The concern is to be brought to the attention of administrators and the superintendent, and, then, if there is still a question, it is brought to the board.

She pointed to Article 4 of the teachers’ contract to illustrate her point: “The Association shall designate representatives who will meet with the principal of each school building to discuss matters relative to this Agreement. Times shall be arranged by mutual agreement.”

That process is in place, Saia said, because otherwise the board would be undercutting the authority of the superintendent and administrators.

Article 12 of the teachers’ contract with the school board says: “The Association shall select four representatives to meet with the Superintendent and/or representatives of the Board to discuss local school problems and practices when deemed necessary by either the Board or the Association.”

Fiero told The Enterprise that the union had followed the chain of command and brought its concerns to Superintendent Brian Hunt, but felt it that didn’t get a proper response, so it asked to meet with the board.

Fiero said that nowhere in the contract does it say that the school board can choose not to meet with the union because of ongoing negotiations.

About what the contract says with regard to the two sides meeting amid ongoing negotiations, Saia, in an email to The Enterprise wrote: “If the union had a discrete issue that was a local school problem, yes, it would advance through the channels. The Superintendent would likely have advised the Board as to the issue if the steps are working as intended. Depending on the nature of the concern raised, we could then determine whether it was time sensitive or would taint ongoing negotiations.”

Saia, a lawyer, went on, “This is how I understand it all works — Doreen, the layperson who is not an Education Law expert. Should such an issue be raised, we would consult with counsel to make sure we were staying within the Education Law and provisions for the public to have access to information.”

In another example, Fiero cited the school board’s vote to make the state Regents exam serve as a final exam that accounts for no more than 4 percent of a student’s final course average. Fiero said that, when the matter was discussed in the curriculum committee, there was consensus that it would be 10 percent not 4 percent, but the board disregarded the consensus.

Saia said that, yes, there had been a lack of communication. However, that is because after a committee meeting, she had “some numbers run,” and it showed that, had the board voted to make the state Regents exam serve as a final exam that accounts for 10 percent of a student’s final course average, an inordinate amount of a student’s final grade would have been determined in the final 10 weeks of school.

Saia said that the board was made aware of what would happen had it voted for 10 percent and not 4 percent, adding, “We said outright, we handled it wrong; parties should have been notified.”

Fiero said that the union was interested in finding a school-board member who was more “collaborative” in her view, someone who would be open to working with the union, the administration, and the community.

“And when Rachel expressed interest in running, and we talked to her, she seemed to have a lot of the characteristics we were looking for,” Fiero said, adding later, “I think that her focus on communication and transparency resonated with us.”

In receiving the union’s endorsement, Fiero stressed that there was no expectation of quid pro quo from Gilker.

Obtaining the union’s endorsement was a less-than-formal process.

Fiero explained how the process began in a follow-up email: “... I sent out a general request, letting members know that I do not believe uncontested elections are good, and I hoped to generate some interest in people to run for the Board.”

Fiero said that she had spoken to Sean Fell one day when he was picking up his daughter from school. Fell’s background as a behavioral psychologist, Fiero said, could be very beneficial to the board, and that he has a daughter in elementary school — when, currently, only one board member has a child in elementary school — would give the board another voice from an underrepresented constituency.

Fell, she said, just wasn’t as seasoned a candidate as Gilker.

“He needed to attend a few more board meetings and develop a sense of what the community is, and get to know more people,” Fiero said of Fell.

No endorsement discussion took place with Saia, Fiero told The Enterprise.  

“I think the teachers are free to endorse whoever they would like,” Saia had said about the union’s endorsement of Gilker in an earlier interview. “I have never asked for anyone’s endorsements. I think that the community should vote as they see fit.”

As for what comes with the endorsement, it boils down to lawn signs and door-knocking. The actual number of members who live in the district, Fiero said, was “a small number,” 15 or so.

 

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