PSRPs Examine Labor-Management Collaboration Firsthand

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The Charlotte Academy for Support Employees offers a lot of training at little cost to paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs), so local union leaders and school officials in Charlotte County, on the southwestern coast of Florida, invited a busload of AFT leaders to come take a look during the PSRP program and policy council's winter meeting Jan. 5-7.

Francene Lawrence and group in Charlotte CountyPSRP leaders visit Neil Armstrong Elementary School in Charlotte County, Fla.

In short, the academy is a voluntary professional development program offering PSRPs a variety of courses, from academics and technology to health and safety. Employees pick their own area of concentration, and their low-cost tuition comes back to them in the form of a permanent salary supplement of up to $1,400 a year, as long as they stay in the school system. Courses include computing, constructive discipline, English as a second language, phonics and parent involvement.

"It's awesome. They're fighting to take the classes," says Charlotte paraprofessional Bonnie Bistarkey, a member of the academy's governing board. "The support staff are so hungry for training."

Francis Holleran manages Spanish courses for the academy and says that "many of our paras are doing small-group instruction and they need that Spanish as much as, if not more than, the teachers." In an interview, he described how, for a new math series or the introduction of new textbooks—materials that must be incorporated immediately—paras and teachers take classes together.

PPC members watched a video of expert testimony from PSRPs enrolled in the academy. Audrey Wharton especially likes learning new skills in special education and Spanish, some of which she has used the very next day. "You're not forced to take a class that has no relevance," she says. And Scott Meyer, a school bus driver, says he's "having a blast" learning computer skills. "What a great way to earn extra salary."

The academy, begun in 2007 and rolled out in 2010, was built from the ground up with input from PSRPs, not all of whom signed on right away. "We were cautious getting into this partnership, there's no doubt about that," says Robert Zipf, president of the Charlotte County School Personnel Association, explaining that some PSRPs were leery because, with 67 different job titles, they weren't sure district officials understood their work and felt they often came out on the short end of the stick.

"It's taken a while to get where we are now," Zipf adds. "There's not 100 percent buy-in into this collaboration, and there probably never will be. It's growing every year. But if adults can't get into a room and decide what's best for the betterment of children and employees, then we have no business being in a leadership role, and that includes me."

Zipf feels the district has shown good faith so far. During the last round of budgeting in 2011, the system used $10 million of its $15 million reserve, and union members agreed to give up holidays and raises, to avoid layoffs. Now another budget season is coming and it's looking horrible, he says, with another shortfall in the millions. If layoffs come, "they have to be across the board. They can't just be the support staff."

Still, Zipf commends district officials for never raising the possibility of privatization, no matter how bad things got. "That's because I believe they truly don't want it. They know it doesn't work," he says. "Our first priority is to save everybody's job, and that's incredibly forward thinking on the part of the district. It speaks volumes for both the union and the district."

Times are changing, agrees Chuck Richards, executive director of the local and a former AFT organizer. In the early days of unionism for school employees, he says, they had to take an adversarial stance just to be heard.

Francene Lawrence with studentAFT executive vice president Fran Lawrence reviews a fifth-grader’s video book report.

Today, the approach is no longer adversarial, he told the PPC. "It's not fun in Florida, and like you we face budgetary problems," he said, adding that one-third of America's homeless children live in Florida, due in part to the housing collapse. That's on top of the fact that Charlotte County lost seven of its 21 schools to Hurricane Charley in 2004, which forced school officials and employees to cooperate. They reopened schools within 12 days and used a strategy called "interest-based bargaining," a collaborative approach to negotiations and problem solving, to make the funding work.

With the rise of privatization and other attacks on the public sector nationwide, "you now have a Hurricane Charley of your own," Richards told the PPC. "There's better motivation than ever to collaborate."

Equal training for support staff may be the most visible sign of collaboration in Charlotte County, but it's not the only one. In consultation with the union, the district renovated a healthcare clinic for employees and their dependents. For $25 per employee per month, families get free visits and free prescriptions for routine care. The clinic now has more than 1,700 participants, nearly half of whom are high-risk patients with chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.

After a briefing about collaboration efforts, PPC members, accompanied by AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence, visited several labor-management team meetings: two at schools, one budget committee meeting and one at the district's transportation facility. Lawrence praised the academy's offerings and funding commitment, noting how the teams use expertise from PSRPs.

In her first stint as PPC chair, Ruby Newbold, president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president, observed that collaboration depends on trust and that everybody has to work hard to maintain that trust. [Annette Licitra/photos by Nico Pavan]

January 18, 2012