VEA steps into Prince William Education Association dispute

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

The Virginia Education Association took sweeping oversight of its Prince William chapter Monday night, entering into a memorandum of understanding with the Prince William Education Association’s executive board that strips the local chapter of much of its autonomy.

As written, the memorandum gives the statewide teachers union wide-ranging authority over the Prince William chapter’s finances, bylaws and elections. Seven of the 12 PWEA board members agreed to the memorandum Monday night, but PWEA President Maggie Hansford insists the document is illegal unless the full PWEA membership and its building representatives agree.

Obtained by InsideNoVa, the memorandum details VEA’s plan to install a trustee to oversee the local group’s operations and mandates that local dues be used to cover 75% of the cost of the trustee.

“Specific concerns regarding the management and government of the PWEA have risen to the level where abuses or the perception of abuses must be addressed, so as to ensure that no state or federal laws are violated, or ethics are impinged,” the memo reads.

In an interview with InsideNoVa, Hansford said the memorandum isn’t legal under the union’s bylaws. The VEA did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday.

“The memorandum of understanding says that the [VEA] trustee advises and consents to any change in the PWEA bylaws, and that breaks our bylaws because our representative assembly has that power,” Hansford told InsideNoVa on Tuesday. “Our board signing this memorandum of understanding does not have the power to take away representative assembly power.”

When asked whether she would pursue legal action regarding the dispute, Hansford declined to comment.

The memo – and the PWEA board’s decision to turn over authority to the statewide union – is the latest development in an ongoing saga between Hansford, who was elected president in 2020, and the association’s board, several current and previous members of which tried to unseat her in two recall votes over the summer.

The dispute also could derail the union’s coming push for collective bargaining, now allowed under state law for local government employees.

PWEA is a private organization, so its meetings are not required to be open to the public. InsideNoVa could not independently verify the exact results of the two recall votes, but a majority of the union’s school building representatives voted to keep Hansford on as president in the face of allegations regarding financial mismanagement and a harsh working environment at PWEA offices. Several board members who backed the recall effort argued that Hansford shouldn’t have been able to oversee her recall effort.

Hansford declined to comment on the specific allegations and the recall attempts, saying that doing so would harm the union’s ongoing efforts surrounding teacher compensation and collective bargaining.

“What happened last night is that we came together, we were unable to follow the established norms that our board voted on … so seven people signed a document that they had no power to and they left the building,” Hansford said of the PWEA board members who agreed to the memorandum. “I’ll continue to work for membership and our number one goal of collective bargaining.”

Among the allegations, several board members accused Hansford of increasing her pay without necessary approval last year. Former PWEA President Riley O’Casey said board members had filed a police report in the city of Manassas – where the organization has its headquarters – but the case number she gave InsideNoVa came back to an unrelated investigation with no connection to Hansford or the PWEA. The Manassas City Police Department said it didn’t have a case file on the matter.

Earlier this month, O’Casey took to Facebook in an attempt to drum up support for another national teacher’s union, the American Federation of Teachers. “This is another option for PWCS employees,” O’Casey wrote.

Hansford’s supporters told InsideNoVa that when the information was presented to the board and union membership, it showed that there was a misunderstanding about her salary because she was no longer on the county school system payroll, but that she hadn’t intentionally done anything wrong.

A petition launched Saturday in her defense has gained the signatures of nearly 400 members, according to a PWEA committee member who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation.

“Our important work has continued, despite the constant witch-hunts and removal attempts, and we will continue to be represented thoroughly and appropriately by a president who has consistently delivered during this pandemic,” the petition reads.

Oveta Scott, one of the board members behind the recall effort, told InsideNoVa that she and Vice President Chuck Ronco took the allegations to the VEA and asked only for the state group to provide a parliamentarian for future disputes – such as those that arose during the recall votes.

Instead, she said, the VEA decided to step in with parliamentary oversight and much more. Ronco, who also serves on the VEA board, declined to comment Tuesday and instead directed questions to VEA communications staff, who did not respond to InsideNoVa’s requests.

“Basically, President Hansford wants full autonomy over everything. And if she doesn’t have her hands on it then nobody else can do it,” Scott told InsideNoVa. “President Hansford, in my opinion, is not a team player. She doesn’t abide by parliamentary rules, bylaws, structure and protocol. … If a president can control her own recall and have proxy votes during her own recall… I know my election in the spring will be biased. I know it will be something shady.”

But Hansford’s backers say she has support of the union’s rank-and-file membership, which members said has grown faster than any other Virginia chapter recently because of her efforts to grow interest in the organization. They say that push, the influx of new members and growing attendance at meetings has threatened a small group of more senior members, many of whom have been on the executive board for years.

“It was member-driven, and I think that was the whole difference between this kind of new school of people … versus the people who have been on it and recycled through it for the past 15 years,” PWEA building representative Amy McCarthy told InsideNoVa. “And I think I can speak for a majority of members that are just angry. We know that this interference, despite what they say, is going to stop the momentum of everything.”

During Hansford’s tenure, teachers received a 5% raise in the 2021-22 county school system budget, and Superintendent LaTanya McDade announced earlier this month that staff members would be compensated for non-contract hours spent in school buildings waiting for buses to pick up students.

But those wins could pale in comparison to gaining the right to collective bargaining. In 2020, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition on collective bargaining by local government employees, but unions must first win the agreement of their governing bodies – in this case, the Prince William County School Board.

During Monday’s meeting with the VEA, Ronco took control of the meeting and called for the vote after Hansford said the proceedings were out of step with union bylaws.

A letter signed by the PWEA board and addressed to members on Tuesday called the board issues “irreconcilable” and said that Hansford herself violated procedure Monday night, forcing Ronco’s hand.

“We want to be clear: This MOU is not a ‘takeover’ by the VEA. This MOU does not negatively impact collective bargaining. A large amount of misinformation has been circulated to vilify those members of the Board who support this trusteeship, but it only serves to prevent the kind of behavior that occured on Monday night,” the letter reads.

But a number of members who contacted InsideNoVa on Tuesday said the move was putting collective bargaining in jeopardy.

“What we found out last night is that [PWEA board members] couldn’t care less about what membership’s opinion is. … It’s appalling, the lack of concern for membership,” said Cynthia Gault, one of the board members who voted against the agreement. “The reps turned out not once but twice, and voted twice to put the whole recall to bed. And once that happened, this memorandum of understanding suddenly appeared.”

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