Collective bargaining sparks debate with Prince William Co. school board

Prince William Education Association members at the March 16, 2022 school board meeting. (Courtesy Jared Foretek/Insidenova)

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.

Disputes are already emerging over the Prince William Education Association’s attempts to form a collective bargaining unit with Prince William County Schools.

Association leaders have thus far declined to submit the signatures they collected in support of collective bargaining, opting instead to rely on a sworn affidavit attesting to the signatures’ authenticity. So far, the School Board is saying an affidavit isn’t enough, and on March 24 the board voted for a process that would include verifying the names and job titles of those who support the collective bargaining push.

At the March 16 School Board meeting, PWEA President Maggie Hansford said her association had collected enough signatures to form a collective bargaining unit and trigger the 120-day deadline for the board to pass or decline a collective bargaining resolution.

At the time, she declined to say who the bargaining unit would encompass, but on March 18 she submitted an affidavit to the division swearing that “a majority (over 51%) of PWCS’ certified employees have signed … union cards supporting collective bargaining, authorizing PWEA to represent them, and confirming their request for the Prince William County School Board to adopt the PWEA’s resolution for collective bargaining.”

A certified employee is anyone whose job requires state certification, encompassing teachers, nurses, specialists, counselors, librarians, psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists and more. Bus drivers, maintenance staff and food service employees are not considered certified employees.

Hansford said in a statement to InsideNoVa that PWEA collected nearly 5,000 signatures to form the collective bargaining unit, though she declined to say why the group was opposed to turning them over. Instead, she said, the PWEA would be open to having a third party verify the signatures or have division and PWEA leadership go through union cards at a “neutral” site and without any names.

“The statute does not require a verification process at all. In fact, the language gives employees the right to decide the bargaining unit and the majority to trigger a vote on a resolution,” Hansford said. “Nevertheless, we are willing to work with the school board on a verification process.”

Lateef said there were issues with giving a third party private personnel data and that the board wanted to stick to a process that was almost identical with the county’s.

The state law allowing public sector collective bargaining that took effect last year fails to set out a process for bargaining unit verification. And unlike some other Virginia localities, Prince William’s School Board didn’t preemptively adopt a resolution laying out the process by which it would verify the PWEA’s certification. Board Chair Babur Lateef said it simply wasn’t a priority with the division hiring a new superintendent last year, finalizing a new strategic plan and budget and addressing learning loss from school closures in 2020 and 2021.

At last week’s meeting, however, the board passed a resolution stipulating that the verification would include having the division’s administration verify the names on PWEA’s ballot cards. Lateef said it was similar to the process the Board of County Supervisors is using to verify bargaining units from the county’s police and fire departments and won’t require PWEA to go back and collect date of hire information from all signatories.

“We’ve notified PWEA that, because we didn’t have a process, we’re not going to make you go out and get new signatures. Whatever you have, we’re happy with, we’re fine, we’re not … requiring you to collect more information,” Lateef told InsideNoVa on Tuesday. “All we want is to see the petitions though. We want to see the petitions … and the cards, and we want to make sure we validate the signatures, which we believe is reasonable.”

After the vote, PWEA members took to social media to slam the verification requirement.

In a video posted to Facebook, George Hampton Middle School teacher and PWEA organizer Jerod Gay said the association had repeatedly asked the School Board for guidance on what they would accept to no avail.

“They declined to issue any guidance, as a matter of fact, and told the union that, ‘All you need to do is go collect the cards and follow the language of the state law.’ So that’s what we did,” he said. “It seems pretty safe to set aside the notion that what the School Board did last [week] was anything but a sneaky attempt to undermine collective bargaining for teachers and school staff in Prince William County and to stab our union in the back. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Gay also said the board was demanding date of hire information. According to Lateef, the board made clear to PWEA lawyers that it would not require date of hire information.

“We believe there needs to be integrity to the process,” Lateef said. “We want to know that our community supports this idea, and we want to make sure that the PWEA that we’re working with is committed to a level of integrity in moving forward.”

Ultimately, the board’s process leaves the decision over whether or not to verify the signatures to Superintendent LaTanya D. McDade. If McDade decides against verifying the signatures, the 120-day timeline will be suspended.

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