LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The contract for Little Rock teachers will expire at the end of this month, and their union no longer has the power to negotiate a new one, so its members are considering a strike.
Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore said Tuesday he has been planning for that possibility for more than a year.
“First and foremost, we want to ensure that we’re going to have school,” he said, “so we want to have things in place that are going to have kids being able to get to school, kids having adults in the school environment, food there, safe environment. Those things are all important.”
The possibility of a strike by members of the Little Rock Education Association began last year during a tense negotiation between the union and Johnny Key, the state commissioner of education, who has acted in place of the school district’s board since the state took control of the district in 2015. A last-minute agreement ended the talk of a walk-out, but Poore said he anticipated it could resume when the Arkansas Board of Education began considering revoking the bargaining power of the LREA.
The state board voted on October 10 to no longer recognize LREA as the bargaining authority for teachers in the district during the same meeting at which it approved the eventual return of LRSD to local control.
Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the LREA, said the lack of communication between state administrators and union leadership frustrates her. “Nobody has asked what the teachers want,” she said. “Nobody has, nobody has talked to us about anything that needs to be fixed that they see is a problem.”
As a result of the vote, Gordon said the union is considering a strike. If they reach that decision, teachers could walk out as soon as November 4, the first day of class after the current contract expires.
Should that occur, Poore said his strike plan includes hiring as many substitute teachers as possible.
“We’ve tried,” Poore explained, “to work with our sub provider, which we contract service out for—WillSub—and have them, you know, really try to guarantee us as many of the subs that are available through their system to come into the Little Rock system.”
He also got special permission from the state to increase the salary of substitute teachers, from no more than $90 a day to $180 a day. “That’s a tool that’s been used, for instance, when Pulaski County [Special School District] went through their strike situation,” Poore mentioned, “we learned that that was one of the things that helped them get additional subs.”
Gordon said that would allow substitutes to earn nearly as much as first-year, certified teachers with bachelor’s degrees, and twice as much as many non-classified employees. She called that disrespectful to LREA members.
Poore would also move almost everyone from the main office (between 100-150 people) into schools and take helpers from the state department of education.
“We feel pretty confident right now,” Poore stated, “that we will be able to have school and have, you know, adults that will be there that can be ready to go serve.”
Gordon believes a lot of students would stay home in solidarity if their teachers went on strike, perhaps enough to close some schools. “I most definitely think that could be a possibility,” she claimed. “I mean, I don’t have exact numbers, but I think it would be a major percentage.”
Poore acknowledged the possibility that some support services and extracurricular activities could be impacted by a strike, too, but said there was too much uncertainty to know the extent of the disruption.
Little Rock teachers have not gone on strike since 1987. But without the negotiating protections afforded by the union, they are considering leaving their classrooms to take a stand.
“Well, obviously, the last thing we want to do is disrupt school and to go on strike,” Gordon stated. “But I don’t want anybody to think that we will allow our children to be taken without putting up a fight, because our children are the whole reason why we’re here every single day.
“As educators, we always put our children first, and we would not be taking these actions, and we would not be considering further action, if we were not concerned about our children’s future.”
Poore said he hopes his strike plan remains on the shelf. “My biggest hope is that a work stoppage doesn’t occur,” he said, “and we just keep on working with our kids because we’re making some meaningful progress.
“We’ve really made strides in the last year. So many positive trends that impact student achievement and students’ level of confidence and preparation for their future. I don’t want to see any of that interrupted.”
Gordon would not say how close the union membership is to a decision about whether to strike. She said that approximately 70 percent of teachers in the district are LREA members.
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