REA wins victory giving city teachers, staff collective bargaining authority

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 12/9/2021, 6 p.m.
In a nearly unanimous vote, the Richmond School Board voted 8-1 Monday night to approve a resolution giving teachers and ...

In a nearly unanimous vote, the Richmond School Board voted 8-1 Monday night to approve a resolution giving teachers and other school staff the power to establish a union and collectively negotiate for pay and benefits.

“I cannot be prouder to support our educators in their advocacy for themselves and their students,” School Board Chairwoman Cheryl L. Burke, 7th District, a retired Richmond Public Schools principal, told the Free Press.

“I have always been a ‘yes’ vote to empower our teachers and staff with the right to organize.”

School Board member Jonathan M. Young, 4th District, was the lone dissenting vote during the meeting, which had some contentious exchanges.

Richmond Public Schools is now the first school district to grant negotiation rights to teachers after the Virginia General Assembly approved collective bargaining for public employees. The new law repealing Virginia’s prohibition of public sector collective bargaining was passed in March 2020 and took effect earlier this year.

Officials expect to see a teachers’ negotiation unit involved in collective bargaining in the 2022-23 school year.

Members of the Richmond Education Association, dressed in red T-shirts and carrying banners, nearly filled the 600-seat auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School for Monday night’s meeting. They spoke, applauded and booed during the meeting as the board deliberated.

State Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan of Richmond, an attorney who sought the Democratic nomination for governor earlier this year, appeared as a rally before the meeting and backed the teachers’ crusade for collective bargaining.

“Having collective bargaining moves us from the menu to the table,” one Richmond teacher said in remarks to the board during the meeting’s public comment period. She said teachers want more control over setting their pay and benefits.

An RPS task force drawing up the resolution included School Board members Stephanie M. Rizzi, 5th District, a former teacher in Henrico County; and Shonda Harris-Muhammed, 6th District, a former RPS administrator and assistant principal in Franklin City Public Schools; representatives of the REA and the Virginia Education Association, along with RPS staff, including Chief Talent Officer Sandra K. Lee, who helped in developing the resolution.

“The process was a beautiful collaboration as the committee put in a lot of time working together developing tonight’s document,” Ms. Rizzi told her colleagues and the audience.

Once the resolution was presented, School Board member Dawn C. Page, 8th District, expressed concern about voting Monday night, saying the board needs “a complete financial analysis and implication of the resolution, as any financial agreement has an impact and ramifications on funding from the city and state.”

Ms. Page reminded board members that they have no power to tax residents to raise money, therefore salary negotiations have to be made based on the budget Richmond City Council allots to the school system.

Her remarks drew boos from the audience, and REA members started chanting, “Vote! Vote! Vote!” in calling for the board to vote on the resolution and not delay it until a future meeting.

Ms. Rizzi responded that materials gathered by the ad hoc committee working on the collective bargaining resolution had been available for board review and comments from the start of the process.

“Our recommendation, as far as I know, is to vote on this tonight,” Ms. Rizzi said.

Board member Liz B. Doerr, 1st District, expressed her support for the resolution, but said she also supported Ms. Page’s concern about a financial analysis.

After a brief recess called by Ms. Burke, Mr. Young reiterated his position against collective bargaining, saying, “I fully recognize the issues teachers brought up in their comments, as well as their frustrations over micro-management and stress.”

However, a different solution is needed, he said, and not collective bargaining as the tool.

After the board voted 8-1 to approve the resolution, REA members left the meeting to celebrate their victory outside the school building.

REA member Keri Treadway, a teacher at Fox Elementary School, said teachers across the Commonwealth will be going through the same fight.

“We need to help them,” she said. “It is about solidarity. It is about support. We take this win and we spread it across the Commonwealth.”