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Government Takes Legal Action Against Teachers for Work Slowdowns

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Feb. 5, 2008 — Saying St. Croix's teachers have engaged in work slowdowns that threaten the academic fortunes of students, the V.I. Government has petitioned the V.I. Superior Court to enjoin the AFT Local 1826 from any more "unlawful job actions."
Acting Education Commissioner Laverne Terry met with the union's chief negotiator, attorney Jessica Gallivan, and key department representatives to discuss several strategically planned job actions — including job slowdowns and work stoppages — by teachers at various St. Croix District schools, according to a statement issued Monday by the Education Department.
There have been actions by teachers on St. Croix and St. Thomas over the past month, but neither of the islands' teachers' unions have authorized the actions, say Vernelle DeLagarde, president of the St. Thomas Federation of Teachers, and Tyrone Molyneux, president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers. The teachers' grievances stem from having to work under terms of their 2006-07 contract since it expired in August 2007.
"We have no plans for any protest or action at this time," Molyneux said Jan. 12. "But yes, we want a contract, and many of our members are frustrated with the pace of negotiations."
Negotiations with the local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers began in June 2007, Terry said in Monday's news release.
"The group has consistently been at the table addressing mutual concerns, and the Department remains committed to the efforts with dates to continue discussions scheduled for February, March and April, and toward a successful end," Terry said. "While the department acknowledges free expression, AFT members have been engaged in demonstrations and ensuing illegal job actions that have caused disruption to the educational process."
The Education Department will soon administer the V.I. Territorial Assessment of Learning (VITAL), and more protests or work slowdowns may jeopardize that process, as well as disrupting the education of the territory's students, Terry said.
"Any and all job actions will negatively impact our efforts and the process of providing our students with their right to an education," she said. "As recent as this morning 50 percent of the teachers at the Alexander Henderson Elementary School reported after 10 a.m., more than two and one half hours later than their regular reporting time. Credible information indicates that this move was indeed a calculated job action."
Terry also pointed to grading issues.
"At the (St. Croix) Central High School we have experienced a refusal by more than half of the teaching staff to submit grades, which are necessary to close out the second marking period," she said. "The grades, which were due on January 30th, almost one week ago, remain delinquent. The implication of withholding grades is critical, particularly in the case of the 12th-grade students, who are required to submit official transcripts for their continuing education admissions process and scholarships."
The government's petition for an injunction against the two teachers' unions also asks the court to direct the teachers to require that the Central High School teachers immediately submit those grades.
The Unions' Perspective
On Tuesday, the Source asked Molyneux for the St. Croix union's reaction to the government's move for an injunction.
"First of all, I'd like to clear up some misinformation in reference to the grades at Central," Molyneux said. "I think if they had met with the teachers to talk, they would have discovered the flash (computer memory) drives are apparently not working for retrieving the grades. They need to be truthful and say the problem in part is a technological malfunction in retrieving the grades."
In Monday's release, deJongh calls for the teachers to come to the table and let the bargaining take its course.
"The leadership of the Virgin Islands Department of Education is committed to the negotiation process evident by the enormous amount of time spent addressing concerns germane to both parties," the governor said. "At this particular juncture of negotiations, it is imperative to focus on the issues that are truly at the heart of why we are at the table and that is to ensure equity for teachers and students. Therefore, I call on the union and its membership as they continue their collaborations to be equally committed to the process and even more so the children of this territory and let the bargaining process ensue."
Molyneux agreed with those sentiments, but said that is the very thing the teachers are pushing for.
"The time this administration has taken to go to court would have been better spent negotiating with the union, and that in turn should have resolved any disputes," he said.
The union does not sanction the recent job actions on St. Croix, but teachers are concerned that if they don't draw a line in the sand, they could suffer the consequences of going years without a contract.
"One of the things members echoed to me, they remember working from 1995 to 2000 with no contract," Molyneux said.
During those years, the teachers had stagnant wages and lost money that would have gone into the retirement system, he said.
"We are not going to lose another five years," Molyneux said. "The members are saying we need to negotiate. We need to meet more often and come to resolution and agreement in a timely manner."
He said he understands finances are tight and that may affect the government's negotiations.
"I would like to commend the governor for negotiating several contracts with other unions," Molyneux said. "But that means the $10 million in the budget for new contracts has been whittled down to nothing. The governor has called a special session for the Legislature to address the property tax. … I would urge the senators to pass the tax to give the governor more room to negotiate."
Negotiations are scheduled for five days later this month, and there are some scheduled for March and April, Molyneux said. The union wants more dates.
"We are looking for more dates, especially in February, so we don't have to be stretching this thing out into an unknown time frame," he said. "When you meet twice a month, it is like a rehearsal and you start over each time. … If we follow that process, it could take years."
As to the effects of teacher actions on students, Molyneux sees it as a real-life civics lesson.
"It is a practical experience for students to understand issues of labor management," he said. "Taking a stand is not a negative; we take it as a positive, especially when talking about critical thinking, relating one's personal life to what is going on in society, and so on. I have children in the public schools. We have families and children and are sensitive to all that, too."
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