Communication breakdown between GI school district and teachers

GIPS responds to GIEA suit
Published: Jan. 27, 2022 at 3:52 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 28, 2022 at 12:12 PM CST
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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - The Grand Island Public School District Thursday disputed a charge by a teacher’s union regarding substitute teachers.

The Grand Island Education Association filed a complaint last week with the Nebraska Court of Industrial Relations accusing the school of paying certain teachers as substitutes when they should have been paid as full-time employees. In the complaint, the teacher’s union said it had tried to resolve the dispute by going through the district’s grievance policy, but claimed that the district was unresponsive.

In a statement Thursday from the Lincoln attorney who represents Grand Island Public Schools, the district said in part. “GIPS is very disappointed that, instead of addressing concerns directly with the District, GIEA resorted to frivolous litigation...” The attorney’s statement also claims that, “GIEA had every opportunity to resolve these issues with the Board of Education during negotiations, including as recently as last week. Evidently, based on their complete silence, GIEA leadership did not view substitute teachers as a priority while negotiating their own compensation.

The attorney’s statement also accused the GIEA of mounting a “surprise, coordinated media campaign against the district,” an apparent reference to a press release sent out Wednesday afternoon by the Nebraska State Education Association on the GIEA’s behalf.

At the heart of the dispute is the GIEA’s claim that at least nine teachers now being paid as substitutes should instead be paid as full-time employees. The GIEA said those teachers are filling what it refers to as vacancies, rather than absences. The union maintains that a teacher who is filling a vacancy created when another teacher quits or is fired should be considered as a full-time employee, instead of being paid as a substitute who fills in for a teacher who is temporarily absent.

In its Wednesday press release, the GIEA claimed that it tried to resolve the dispute by using the agreed upon grievance procedure, once in October with the district Human Relations department, then again later by requesting a meeting with GIPS superintendent Dr. Tawana Grover. In both cases the grievance was denied. Then the GIEA went to the GIPS school board. It said the school board gave it “no reasonable response from the board and no hearing.”

GIEA President Michelle Carter said, the union had first reached out the district with their concerns in August 2021, but had no luck.

“We’ve started at the very bottom and honestly we hope that it would have been taken care of before now, that we would’ve been able to reach a suitable solution for all of the parties, but we unfortunately … we didn’t get responses, there were some lags in the deadlines and things like that from the district and its kind of forced us to go this next step,” Carter said.

Carter added, they began by “filing a level-one” with the GIPS Director of Human Capital and Management — which she said was denied. She also noted, the GIEA took a second approach, and extended the response deadlines multiple times.

The GIEA eventually filed a complaint January 21 against the district with the state Court of Industrial Relations. It is not known when the court will hear the matter. On Thursday via email CIR Legal Counsel Ashlea Whitney told Local4, “At this point, we have not yet received a responsive filing from the Respondent.” The respondent Whitney refers to is the Grand Island School District.

Carter said, by taking this approach, they were wanting to bring attention to these substitutes’ situation.

”I hope that this is something that brings awareness to that, that we want to be treating these folks who are really down in the trenches with us everyday, they’re our colleagues, they’re doing the work just like we are, we want to make sure that they’re compensated fairly,” Carter said.

The school district declined Local4′s request for an on-camera interview Thursday.

Here is the full statement issued Thursday by Lincoln attorney Justin Knight on behalf of the Grand island School District:

We are fully confident that Grand Island Public Schools is in good legal standing regarding its substitute teachers. GIPS is very disappointed that, instead of addressing concerns directly with the District, GIEA resorted to frivolous litigation and a surprise, coordinated media campaign against the District. The GIEA had every opportunity to resolve these issues with the Board of Education during negotiations, including as recently as last week. Evidently, based on their complete silence, GIEA leadership did not view substitute teachers as a priority while negotiating their own compensation. And while GIPS strongly disagrees with the GIEA’s apparent approach to create division between GIPS and its employees, GIPS remains extremely proud of and committed to its teachers and staff, and will continue to support them within the District’s legal obligations. Any GIPS employees with concerns are highly encouraged to speak directly with their immediate supervisor or the district office.”

Here is a press release sent late Wednesday afternoon by the Grand Island Education Association:

The Grand Island Education Association believes its bargaining unit members are being paid inconsistently with its agreement with the school district. The association filed a petition with the Nebraska Commission of Industrial Relations against Grand Island Public Schools Jan. 21, alleging a violation of the Industrial Relations Act.

The petition claims the school district is misclassifying several members of its staff who are filling vacant positions as longterm substitutes and paying them much less than they would make under GIEA’s collective bargaining agreement.

As a result of a case brought before the Nebraska Supreme Court by the NSEA a decade ago, Nebraska law recognizes that an employee who is hired to fill an open position is not a substitute.

“The Court acknowledged that a legitimate substitute is considered someone who assumes the duties of another employee due to their temporary absence. If the regular employee is not expected to return to their position, then there exists a vacancy to be filled by a member of the bargaining unit,” said Nick Welding of Norby & Welding LLP, NSEA’s attorney who filed the petition on behalf of GIEA.

The petition points out that those misclassified employees are part of the GIEA bargaining unit and should be paid under GIEA’s agreement with the district. The district, however, is paying them as substitutes.

Welding said the district’s substitute rate tops out at $200 per day, but that takes certain factors, like retiree status, into account. Most of the misclassified staff are making $160-$180 per day, which equates to several thousand dollars less than the starting salary for a contract employee. Plus, the subs aren’t getting benefits like health insurance.

“They could be making $250 to $300 a day if they had a contract,” said Michelle Carter, GIEA president and a fifth-grade teacher at Dodge Elementary. “A full day’s pay for a teacher who has been here at least five years is over $300.”

Welding said last August, the association submitted a written request to district administrators for information regarding the identity of those misclassified employees, as well as their assignments, workload, compensation and other details. Carter said the district underwent a change in human resources directors during that time, and with the hustle and bustle of the start of a new school year, everyone was busy, so they tried to be patient.

“We waited and waited and waited. It took over a month for us to get the information,” Carter said, “but it wasn’t everything we asked for. There were lots and lots of holes.”

Administrators responded with partial information, but did not disclose each employee’s full-time equivalency, compensation or terms and conditions of employment, leaving some misclassified employees off the list entirely.

“Then we started gathering the information ourselves,” Carter said. “We had our building reps do the research in their own building, finding out who was considered by the district as a long-term sub and what their terms were.” “None of the grievance procedures were followed.”

In October, the association filed a grievance with the district’s HR department. The multi-step grievance process then requires a meeting with the superintendent and, if it progresses further, a hearing before the school board.

After asking for an extension, HR denied the grievance on the basis that the people the “substitutes” are filling in for would be returning.

“But we’ve found many of them have resigned or been reassigned, so they’re not coming back,” Welding said.

The association then took it to the next step in the grievance process, filing the complaint with the superintendent.

“I delivered that myself, and again we waited, and the deadline passed,” Carter said. “According to our grievance procedure, they should have had a meeting within 10 days.”

When the association reached out again, it received a response nearly identical to the one from HR, and no meeting was held. The association then took the grievance to the school board, which had 25 days to hold a hearing. That time passed with no reasonable response from the board and no hearing.

“None of the grievance procedures were followed,” Carter said.

The association kept refining its list of misclassified employees, keeping track of who was filling which position and for how long.

“We were at the point that we were just going to drop it and never speak of it again, or we were going to move forward with the litigation,” Carter said. “Our goal wasn’t to end up in litigation, but we felt our hand was forced, partly because we were never given a meaningful opportunity to address our concerns through the grievance process. The people we are fighting for are our colleagues. They are working side-by-side with us and performing the same duties we are but for much less pay.”

“The teachers being treated as substitutes are performing an important function in a difficult situation and are not able to enforce the agreement on their own. They’re not offering them contracts or benefits, but they are filling vacancies. The school is taking economic advantage of them,” said Scott Norby of Norby & Welding.

The petition argues that the refusal of the district to compensate staff misclassified as substitutes as bargaining unit members goes against the negotiated agreement, violates the integrity of the collective bargaining process and is a practice prohibited by state law.

“Our goal is to get these folks the compensation the district has agreed to pay its regular teaching staff,” Carter said. “They are part of our bargaining unit, and they deserve to be paid as such.”

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