Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Senate Democrats remained at odds Friday over the union rights of teachers in the troubled schools that are at the heart of Malloy’s education reforms, with legislators questioning if some of the proposed reforms run afoul of labor laws.
Malloy said he supports a continued role for unions at the troubled schools, but he sees conventional arbitration rights as a time-consuming impediment. Senate Democratic leaders said they are unsure if the administration can legally force teachers to give up arbitration rights or even reopen existing contracts.
“Quite frankly, there is a threshold question that we need to have answered as to whether you can force the reopening of a contract,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.
How can the question be resolved?
“We’ve asked the administration for legal support to the idea that you could just willy-nilly open a union contract without their consent,” Williams said.
Reforms in New Haven, which has been regarded by many as a model for reform, were negotiated with teachers. “A lot of that came as part of a new contract,” Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said.
Only one-third of teachers’ contracts in the state will expire this year, according to the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.
But Malloy has said he does not want to have to wait for union approval or for their contracts to expire to get involved in the state’s 25 worst schools. His proposal gave the education commissioner broad authority to make certain changes without requiring union support.
Malloy told reporters at the state Capitol complex Friday he disagrees that turnaround plans should have to wait for the union nod or after their legal options to run out.
“Arbitration, as you know, is a very timely process. So do we think arbitration is the way to settle that issue? The answer is no,” he said.
Senate Democrats are correct to worry about the legality of negating union contracts, a spokesman for the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers said.
“Yes, we would definitely be in court … and guess what? We would probably win because you can’t just throw out contracts,” said Eric Bailey of AFT Connecticut.
A spokesman for the State Department of Education said Michigan, Tennessee and Louisiana have all survived legal challenges and successfully carried out state takeovers of their worst-performing schools.
“Such states have also taken steps to eliminate or overturn collectively bargained agreements. In contrast, we suggest that Connecticut take much more moderate steps. Schools would remain within their local districts when they participate in the Commissioner’s Network, returning fully to local oversight when the turnaround has been conducted,” said Jim Polites with state education department.
Officials at the Center on Education Policy and the National Association of Boards of Education said they are not aware of any cases where the courts have overturned the state takeover of low-performing schools.
“State takeover is a re-emerging trend,” said Diane Rentner, the executive director of the OCEP, a non-profit think tank, specifically mentioning Louisiana and Michigan. “States have created completely new districts for certain schools. If it’s a new district then there is no existing contract… They negotiate from scratch.”
Patrice McCarthy, a longtime education lawyer, said the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education thinks that creating this so-called Commissioner Network district is “completely in the authority of the legislature. Someone can challenge that in the court of course. We don’t think that they’ll be successful.”
But Senate Democrats are looking for a much more diplomatic approach with the unions to getting change in these districts.
“When the governor sought concessions last year to help balance the budget deficit, we just couldn’t simply legislate that contracts be reopened. The unions had to agree to reopen those contracts,” Williams, the Senate president, said.
“I think all of the points that folks are making in terms of collective bargaining come back to that threshold question: Can you force a union to reopen a contract if that contract is not expunged?” he said.
Williams and Looney, who answered questions about education reform at a news conference on a jobs bill before the Senate session Friday, downplayed the continuing conflict they have with the Democratic governor over his major priority.
“I still believe that when this session is over, we’ll be on the same page,” Williams said. “We’ll have some good initiatives that help improve education.”
Time is growing short. The legislature’s constitutional adjournment deadline is midnight May 9, but Williams and Looney said the relationship with the governor remains constructive, and their talks are positive.
“Look, we’ve obviously had some policy disagreements or else we would have passed the governor’s bill right out of the box. These disagreements are fair. They are reasonable,” Williams said. “It is my expectation we will have resolved all of those in the not too distant future.”
Looney said the Democratic majority and Democratic governor have worked together on controversial matters.
“On major issues like the creation of the earned-income tax credit, in-state tuition and now, this year, the death penalty, we’ve worked in close partnership with a Democratic governor,” Looney said. “We expect we will continue to do that on issues that are easy and issues that are hard.”