The V.I. Government has both local chapters of the American Federation of Teachers union "put on notice" not to plan any job actions over the school calendar, but the St. Croix local insists no actions are planned.
At issue are several current disputes between the two teachers union chapters and the government, most significantly, a dispute over the school calendar.
The V.I. Legislature approved Act 7369 in 2012 – over Gov. John deJongh’s veto – to move up the beginning of the school year by two weeks so that classes and exams could end before Christmas and the Crucian Christmas Carnival. Another law delayed the original deadline for compliance to the 2014-15 school year.
The goal of the legislation was to have students finish the semester before going on break instead of returning after two weeks off to take final exams.
Both the Education Department and the teachers unions told the Senate earlier this month that the change to the calendar impacts the summer break for all the teachers and others who work for 10 months but have their pay prorated over the full 12 months.
The teachers and supervisors unions’ contracts stipulates a 60-day vacation period, while the 2012 law would reduce that by 20 days this year and obligate the government to pay for the extra work time in a lump sum before the school year begins. This would cost about $5.4 million, all at once, at a time when the department is already struggling with cuts, cannot hire all the teachers it needs and has no good way to pay for new textbooks, according to the Education Department.
But during hearings on delaying or amending the new calendar earlier this month, Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory said the department had worked out a plan to rearrange days so that teachers would get days off later in the year. Frett-Gregory proposed extending Christmas break so classes return Jan. 14 instead of Jan. 7, then getting rid of two and a half days of break during Carnival on St. Thomas.
Since then, both teachers unions have come out vigorously against Frett-Gregory’s proposal, insisting that its members be paid an additional lump sum for starting two weeks earlier, but not lose any days or money later in the year.
Some teachers on St. Thomas have staged protests of the new calendar, but there have been no work stoppages. (See related links below)
V.I. Chief Labor Negotiator Valdemar Hill Jr. wrote a letter to AFT local chapter Presidents Vernelle Delagarde and Rosa Soto-Thomas on Friday saying “the government is in receipt of credible information indicating that several members of the teachers union are contemplating engaging in organized job action.”
“It is beyond our understanding that the AFT union members would engage in a job action that will jeopardize the education of our young people over the issue of the school calendar,” Gov. John deJongh Jr. said in a statement Monday. DeJongh said the restructured calendar proposed by Frett-Gregory follows the letter of the law and includes an early start date for school, an extended Christmas break and spells out professional development days.
“We understand that there are concerns about the calendar but the department must structure an annual school calendar that falls within the guidelines of the law which is what has been proposed,” he added.
Hill said the information obtained by the government is that the unionized school teachers are planning sickouts beginning today; not planning to report to work after Wednesday; not reporting at all this week or coming in and not teaching and preparing packets of schoolwork to give students for them to complete next week at home and telling the students not to come to school because teachers will not be at the school.
“Any employee who engages in a work stoppage will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including discharge," Hill said. "Further, under Virgin Islands law, a union may be held legally responsible for any damages incurred by the government as a result of an unlawful job action, even if the job action was not authorized by the union," he said.
DeJongh said the new calendar was approved over his veto, but was now law and had to be implemented.
“This is not a negotiable matter, the school year will begin on Aug. 11 with the first semester ended on Dec. 23 just before the Christmas break. The school year will end in early June," deJongh said.
Reached Monday afternoon, Soto-Thomas said her union has no plans for work stoppages. She said her members are not happy with the calendar and want a lump sum payment before showing up to work two weeks earlier. And she confirmed her union’s members also do not want to take off the proposed days later in the year.
But "while we are not pleased with their attempts to resolve matters with the AFT, we will be dealing with this through the proper channels," she said.
Calls to Delagarde had not been returned as of 8 p.m. Monday.
St. Croix members are also unhappy with the Education Department’s planned makeup days for Central High School, Soto-Thomas said.
To make up for class time lost when St. Croix Central High closed in February and March due to odor complaints, the Education Department has scheduled make-up instructional days for this week.
But union members say they came to work on several of those days in February and March before being sent home. "My members came out and there is a past practice that whenever we come out to work, that constitutes a work day. Once we leave home and go to work, it is considered a work day," Soto-Thomas said.
She said, "There ought to be a discussion" of these issues, but instead "the department is playing hardball with us." She also raised the issue of school psychologists and social workers, who were directed in 2012 to stay at work until the end of the school day – two more hours than they had been working. Those school psychologists and social workers have not received payment for the additional two hours of work a day implemented in 2012, despite an arbitration ruling in the teachers’ favor in August 2013, Soto-Thomas said.