News From Terre Haute, Indiana

April 21, 2011

New Law limits teachers’ union bargaining chips

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Teachers’ unions in Indiana will no longer be able to negotiate such items as school calendars, class size or teacher evaluation procedures under a new law that restricts collective bargaining rights.

“It limits local control on what we can and cannot bargain,” said Shane Grimes, area Uniserv director with the Indiana State Teachers Association.

On Wednesday, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed Senate Bill 575 into law. It prohibits contracts between school districts and teachers unions from including anything other than wages and wage-related benefits. The GOP-led Indiana Senate voted 30-19 Tuesday for the bill, which had previously been approved by the Republican-ruled House.

The teacher collective bargaining law has been in place since 1973, Grimes said.

He doesn’t understand how dismantling that law, and taking away most items that are negotiated, helps local people have more control, he said.

Vigo County Schools Superintendent Dan Tanoos said he does not agree with the changes to the collective bargaining law. “We bargain very cooperatively with our teachers association,” he said. The new law “is a step backwards.”

The Legislature is using a “broad brush” approach that affects all school districts because of problems with collective bargaining agreements in some school systems. “It takes the administration to accept those agreements,” he said, and those superintendents should share in the blame where problems exist.

In some districts, SB 575 may mean “wholesale changes” in teacher working conditions, Tanoos said.

In Vigo County, “We have a great relationship and we want to maintain that working relationship,” Tanoos said. Even though the law has changed, “I still think we would want to have meaningful discussion” on issues affecting teachers.

The Vigo County Teachers Association and administration have begun contract talks early this year, and Tanoos hopes an agreement can be reached in about a month. The new legislation, which takes effect July 1, is a factor in the early negotiations this year, he said.

Dan Vukovits, co-president of the Rockville teachers association, said he wasn’t familiar with all the details, but he believes SB 575 does represent a loss of local control as far as school communities, boards, administrators and teachers “working through issues that happen locally.”

SB 575 “will turn things upside down” in public education, Vukovits said.

 Two provisions of the law take effect immediately:

 n Current teacher contracts may not extend past the budget biennium.

 n Districts may not collectively bargain teacher evaluation procedures or criteria. According to the state Department of Education, teachers will still be involved in evaluation procedures and criteria through “required discussions with school leadership.”

One teacher concerned about the changes affecting public education is Dan Wunderlich, a chemistry teacher at Terre Haute South Vigo High School who has taught for 39 years.

“The entire atmosphere that’s been established in the state and nationally is concerning to a lot of people,” Wunderlich said. Many educators worry that talented people who are considering going into the profession will decide otherwise “because of all the negatives being thrown out.”

He believes SB 575 will take away the team approach that now exists between teachers and school officials. “I’ve always felt that we had moved away from the ‘us and them’ situation and we were really approaching our profession as a team,” Wunderlich said. He believes SB 575 “is going to move us away from the team approach and back to a situation that could evolve to ‘us and them’.”

What’s happening at the Statehouse “is disheartening,” and the changes have occurred very quickly, Wunderlich said. “I can feel the difference when I talk to my colleagues. There is a real feeling of uneasiness.”

Mark Lee, president of the Vigo County Teachers Association, said his reaction to SB 575 “is not suitable for print.”

In Vigo County, the association and district officials “try to be reasonable and collaborative” in negotiating contracts, Lee said.

 In a statement, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said SB 575 empowers school leaders to make decisions based on students’ needs.

“For school administrators across the state, this is a game-changing moment for our schools,” Bennett stated. “Gov. Daniels and Indiana’s legislators have put students first by giving local school leaders the freedom to run local schools.”

According to the DOE news release, SB 575  “prevents contracts from hand-cuffing school leaders with clauses that are detrimental to student achievement. For example, some contracts limit the number of meetings a principal may have with instructors or prevent principals from assigning effective teachers to high-need classrooms.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.