by J.C. Bowman
The Tennessee General Assembly is considering legislation relative to teachers acting as representatives of a professional employees' organization (Senate Bill 867/House Bill 847). In my role as Executive Director of a professional employees' organization, we welcome the debate and the chance to reallocate tax dollars to the classroom for instruction or into teacher salaries. We applaud Senator Delores Gresham, Representative John Ragan and others for their willingness to discuss an issue that has sparked national debate.
Recently, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) calculated the time and costs of "release time" or "official time" by the federal government and the numbers were astounding: 3,395,187 total hours and an estimated cost of $155,573,739.25. OPM says that the cost comes to about one-tenth of one percent of the total payroll.
According to Ben DeGrow, senior policy analyst of the Independence Institute's Education Policy Center in Denver, Colorado, the practice of paid time for these activities "is very common in every unionized school district." DeGrow points out that districts provide paid union leave either through specified employee salaries or through a pool of hours made available to the union to assign and use as it chooses. The school district then must pay a substitute teacher to fill the opening caused by a unionized teacher being absent from work to do union business. DeGrow stated his organization documented teachers on paid leave lobbying the legislature. This practice undoubtedly occurs in Tennessee.
Many school districts give an allotment of general release days for professional employees' organization activities. The number of days tends to vary with the size of the district and the number of teachers. Local professional employees' organization officials and representatives may use these days to attend business meetings or workshops, which may include political advocacy.
While our organization does engage in advocacy on behalf of our members, we do not endorse or contribute to political parties or candidates with our member dues. In regards to political contributions, the Tennessee Education Association was the second largest donor to political campaigns in 2012, according to the Follow the Money website. In fact, they spent $262,500 in reported political contributions in 2012.
In 2012, the Tennessee Education Association gave $234,000 to Democratic Candidates and $20,500 to Republican Candidates, as well as $8,000 to Independent Candidates. To further illustrate, these political contributions meant that 89.14% went to Democrats, 7.81% to Republicans and 3.05% went to Independents. They only won 56.2% of the political races they funded, but lost 43.2% of the races. It is hard to make a convincing case that these political donations benefit Tennessee educators or improve student achievement. The question legislators must ask themselves, "were any of the individuals who were granted release time conducting political activities on the taxpayer dime?"
Our organization clearly understands that we must operate in a transparent manner when using taxpayer dollars. We would have no problem with legislation that requires a professional employees' organization to pay the full cost of teachers who use release time to conduct organization business, or to require the teacher using release time to deduct it from their personal leave.
However, we do disagree with school districts that permit release time to representatives and then turn right around and grant them teaching experience for their time in service to the professional employees' organization. These individuals then continue advancing on the salary schedule as though they have accrued actual classroom teaching experience. This is not fair to the hardworking classroom teachers who are engaged in the actual teaching of students across Tennessee. Why should a professional employees' organization representative advance on the salary schedule for conducting organization business? We know of several cases where the professional employees' organization representatives have not been in the classroom for years.
There are still several school districts that have provisions in collective bargaining agreements, giving a certain number of paid leave days to a teacher who has been elected to serve as a national, state or local director for the teachers' professional employees' organization. Legislation should not impact these districts until these contracts expire in 2014. Our organization also supports the concept that time spent during normal working hours by a teacher representative of a professional employees' organization participating in a grievance procedural meeting, or a disciplinary or employment rights meeting at the request of another teacher be considered as engaging in school duties.
In an era that demands accountability, our organization is committed to work with legislators to ensure taxpayer money is wisely spent in Tennessee. We welcome a civil discussion on this subject by policymakers and taxpayers.
J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.