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Despite five months of negotiations, the Albuquerque Public Schools board tabled changes to the district’s negotiated agreement with the local teachers union in an unprecedented vote Wednesday evening.
The move prompted the Albuquerque Teachers Federation to declare an impasse with the district on Thursday, which means that negotiations are at a stalemate and litigation could be on the horizon.
Union President Ellen Bernstein said that leaves the agreement – along with what the union claims are the biggest pay raises in APS history for many educators – up in the air.
“It’s a sad day,” she told the Journal in an interview. “It is disheartening for every single one of the educators represented by this union, over 6,000 people in schools … . Last night, trust was broken.”
Board members deliberated for several hours on how to proceed on the contract changes, which would have solidified commitments to pay many licensed educators the same as teachers and implemented restorative practices into schools. It also included language involving educators’ freedom to teach, which became a major point of contention.
The agreement was ultimately tabled on a motion by Secretary Courtney Jackson. Jackson, Danielle Gonzales, Peggy Muller-Aragón and Crystal Tapia-Romero voted to table the contract and Yolanda Montoya-Cordova, Barbara Petersen and Josefina Domínguez voted not to.
“I cannot tell you how strongly I oppose this,” Petersen said. “It is not the role of the board to negotiate (the) contract, that is an administrative duty … when we turn this down, it is a slap in the face.”
The board’s decision to table the agreement came after Albuquerque educators resoundingly approved it earlier this month.
Representatives from the APS administration and the union warned that an impasse would open up a can of worms for everyone involved. Bernstein said an APS school board has never tabled an agreement before. While it’s too early to tell right now, an impasse could lead to litigation, she said. The union, in its letter, to an APS attorney called for a mediator to be assigned.
The big-ticket item in the contract changes was a commitment to pay instructional support providers, such as counselors and nurses, the same minimum salaries as teachers after many were left behind when lawmakers approved raises for teachers and some counselors earlier this year.
The salary agreement was approved earlier this summer, just ahead of the rest of the contract changes. Bernstein has said that was done in an effort to “make sure that people understood … we want to retain people.”
It’s not clear if educators who benefitted from the negotiated raises will see smaller paychecks going forward than they got in the first weeks of school, Bernstein said.
Gonzales said her issue wasn’t with restorative justice, or with the raises, but with making sure the agreement aligned with board policy.
She homed in on language outlining the right of educators to exercise their professional judgment in academic issues within the limits of Common Core State Standards and other guidelines, arguing that research showed that when teachers have flexibility to choose instructional materials, it results in a lower quality education.
“I think we’re living in la-la land if we think that this professional judgment actually works,” she said during the meeting. “It doesn’t.”
While many teachers can make those professional judgments, she said, many aren’t always prepared properly to teach to standards, leading them to fall into teaching “what is comfortable for them.”
“They are left to sort of founder on Google and Pinterest, and that’s not what’s best for kids,” she told the Journal in an interview. “We need a comprehensive focus not just on the standards, but also the instructional materials, also professional development that is aligned to both the standards and the instructional materials, and school leadership that supports all of that.”
Bernstein disagreed, saying it’s better to “actually teach the kids in front of us,” and give teachers some flexibility in standards-based education systems. She noted that the language some board members objected to had actually been in the previous contract, adding that Wednesday’s discussions were at times “really disrespectful of teachers.”
“At odds was who is in charge of making the best educational decisions for kids,” she said. “Is it the teacher in the classroom, who’s been trained, prepared, has experience … or the Board of Education?”
Also included in the agreement is a commitment to weave social-emotional learning into school days and implement restorative practices in classrooms in every school. In the agreement, the union and the district said restorative practices, which include a range of different supports for students focused on respect and accountability, “contribute to a positive school climate.”
That in turn helps prevent bullying, reduces violence, boosts attendance rates and academic achievement, promotes students’ mental well-being, and helps retain educators, they said.
Implementing restorative practices in schools would involve a shift away from in-school suspensions in middle and high schools, developing conflict mediation programs and potentially creating student councils to run them.
Jackson pointed out that, while negotiators had five months to work on the agreement, the board had just five days to review it. On Thursday, Gonzales said she was disappointed to hear the union had declared an impasse, but hoped the district and union could still collaborate.
“What we tried to communicate was a request for not just more time, but for grace and trust,” she said. “We’re trying to do our best, and trying to get the information that we need and … to make good decisions.”
Superintendent Scott Elder said language from previous boards has been included throughout the history of the contract and that some board member requests have been woven into the contract this year based on feedback they gave during an executive session.
Montoya-Cordova acknowledged Wednesday night that negotiators had “worked really hard to get to this point,” and asked Bernstein for a few weeks so board members could “get our stuff together.”
“An impasse is not in the best interest at all of this community, for the district, or for our staff or for our children and our families,” she said. “It is not.”
Less than 24 hours later, the union declared an impasse.