When Teacher Contracts Are Non-Negotiable

What would happen if collective bargaining for teachers was abolished?

One obvious question raised by the proposal to abolish collective bargaining for Tennessee teachers is, what would happen then? The bill itself offers little guidance, saying only that decisions to "employ, transfer, suspend, nonrenew, and dismiss all personnel" should be "consistent with existing state laws and board policies."

"Right now, we have contracts," says Bill Bell, a Halls High School music teacher who is also a representative to the political action wing of the Tennessee Education Association. "Everybody knows what's expected of them. Board and management, teachers and certified staff. If the contracts are voided, where are we? In Knox County, that's a big question: What happens?"

The law, if passed, would allow existing contracts to expire. But after that, it would be up to individual school systems to figure out how to deal with their teachers.

Of course, 45 of Tennessee's 136 school systems are already doing this. They are mostly smaller systems, employing about 10 percent of the state's teachers. Jerry Winters, the Tennessee Education Association's director of government relations, says that even teachers in those systems benefit from those that do have collective bargaining. For example, Shelby County is the largest system in the state without a collective bargaining agreement. But it has to be competitive with Memphis, which does.

Another example is next door to Knox County, in Oak Ridge. Keys Fillauer, chairman of the Oak Ridge school board and a retired Oak Ridge teacher and coach, says that as far as he knows, there was never an effort to institute collective bargaining in the school system. But he acknowledges that is probably because teachers have traditionally been well paid there, with salaries often among the top 10 systems in the state. Knox County administrators have long lamented the outflow of classroom talent to the Secret City.

And there is a teachers' group there, the Oak Ridge Education Association. But instead of negotiating contracts, it makes budget proposals each year to the school board, with recommendations for raises, step increases, benefit funding, and so forth. "Probably the number one reason that this has been successful over the years is that there's always been an open dialogue," Fillauer says.

But things have been tougher recently in Oak Ridge. In the past four years, the system's nearly 400 teachers have received just one raise, of 1.5 percent. The association has asked for a 3 percent raise for next year, and Fillauer says he hopes the board can provide some kind of boost. "It does present frustration, there's no doubt about it," he says.