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Rio Rancho School Evolution Policy Challenged

By Elaine D. Briseño
Journal Staff Writer
    The Rio Rancho school employees union wants the school district to shelve its new science policy relating to evolution until it consults teachers about how it will affect them in the classroom.
    Failing to do so violates state law, says union attorney Andrew Lotrich, who has filed a complaint with the Rio Rancho Labor Relations Board.
    The 1,200-member Rio Rancho School Employees' Union wants the labor board to remove the policy from the books until it is brought to the table as part of ongoing contract negotiations. The board hears disputes between management and the union.
    "They (the district) should discuss these issues with affected employees before the policy is adopted instead of implementing the policy with no true dialogue," Lotrich said.
    The union represents most of the school district's employees, including teachers and counselors.
    The district contends the complaint is an attempt to undermine the decision-making authority of the school board and should be dismissed.
    "Obviously, we have a different interpretation of the requirements of the law," Gary Wall, labor relations attorney for Rio Rancho Public Schools, said Friday. "We disagree with the union on this issue but we respect their right to have an opinion on this matter that is different from ours."
    The Rio Rancho school board adopted the controversial policy in August, opening the door for discussion of alternative ideas during the teaching of evolution in science class. Supporters of the policy say it will ensure students are following scientific principles of critical thinking.
    Opponents claim the policy is a way to slip religion into the science classroom, allowing the introduction of the idea of intelligent design to students under the guise of "good science." Intelligent design is based on the theory that life forms are too complex to be explained solely by Darwinian evolutionary theory.
    The union claims in its complaint, filed in August, that the school board should have addressed the impact the policy would have on teachers before adopting the policy.
    Lotrich cited the state collective bargaining law that says: "The scope of bargaining for representatives of public schools as well as education employees in state agencies shall include, as a mandatory subject of bargaining, the impact of professional decisions made by the employer."
    "The union is not looking to take away the decision-making ability of the district," he said. "All we are asking is the education employees be involved in the process."
    Shortly after the policy was adopted, there were class disruptions and employee morale dropped, Rio Rancho High School Sci-Matics academy head Dan Barbour has said. He said in one instance, students took class time in an anatomy and physiology class debating evolution and intelligent design. The next day, in the same class, a student brought the Book of Mormon and wanted to discuss his beliefs on the topic.
    Wall said the law does not mean the district has to discuss a policy or its content with employees before the policy is adopted.
    "We only have to negotiate the impact," he said.
    In its response to the complaint, the district is asking the labor board to dismiss the complaint because "there is no evidence, or even an allegation, that the complainant ever requested to bargain over the impact of" the policy.
    The response also says the union's complaint is an attempt to interfere with the district's right to make decisions.