BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The 2017 Chapter 20 overhaul has left many school districts in Iowa in a bind as the new legislation has created some huge divides between teachers and school administrators. Well….most districts.
Fort Madison, on the other hand, is sort of lighting the way along a road less traveled as the district and teachers agreed to a five-year master contract at Monday’s regular meeting of the Fort Madison School board.
Iowa Code Chapter 20 was the code that was dismantled by Iowa’s Republican leadership early in 2017 leaving teachers with the right to negotiate for wages only. All other bargaining rights were stripped away by the state’s legislature and then Governor Terry Branstad.
“It was basically union busting,” said Fort Madison Middle School teacher Rachella Dravis, who attended Monday’s meeting to be there for the approval of the contract.
But Dravis said with other school districts in the area fighting over contract renewals, Fort Madison’s was a much smoother process with a longer result. With the transfer of the other former bargaining options to the district’s certified employee handbook, which was also approved Monday night, the Fort Madison Education Association and the school district sat down and went to work on both documents.
Dravis said two years ago, before the scrapping of Chapter 20, the teachers’ union and administration agreed to establish a labor-management committee, but she said it never got off the ground with the previous administration.
Superintendent Erin Slater said negotiations on the employee handbook was arduous at times, but she said it’s groundbreaking that two sides were able to work together to come up with a document that fits both sides.
“There is some relief in the room,” Slater said directing her comments at Dravis. “This is a labor of love and a labor of just hard work. This has been a year-long process of the FMEA and the administration forming a two-year process of our labor management group. The first year we did labor management we didn’t really know what we were doing and we sat around the table and became collaborative, initially about insurance, but it was part of the contract to have a labor management committee, but never got off the ground and we decided it needed to get off the ground.”
The committee had monthly meetings with five members of FMEA and four from administration.
“We combed through this book line-by-line, word-by-word, to make sure what we understood this to actually mean. This needs to be a document that makes sense to everyone. There were sessions where we sat for two or three hours working through two paragraphs because it was such intense language that we wanted to make sure everyone understood.”
Slater said it was important that the handbook be a professional document that reflected the direction of the school district as a whole.
“We’ve got attention to detail and we’ve got some things we’re gonna try different next year that’s a little outside the box, that we think our members are really going to be excited about,” she said “We wanted this to be a professional document. Our employees are professional people and they needed to be treated as such and so we needed to make sure that language reflected that.”
Dravis said the handbook and contract put Fort Madison front and center with state education officials.
“I want to make sure the board realizes this is a big deal. We were handed this thing down from the state and I am so just so proud to know that we worked with the hand that was dealt and we worked in such a positive way. The people in Des Moines and across the state are waiting on us. They want to know what it is we’re doing and they want to know how we’re doing it and how our labor-management committee is working. Fort Madison is being put on the map in such a positive way.”
Board President Tim Wondra said it was important for the community to see the length of the contract.
“This is just another new thing for us,” he said.
Board member Gayla Young, who teaches in the Danville school district, said it was a very contract and handbook are huge accomplishments.
“Most people don’t realize what a big deal this is, to take the hand the state gave us when they gutted everything, and you had to work together. Lots and lost of district can’t do that and they still have the them-against-us mentality,” she said.
Dianne Hope pointed out the district had the forethought to start the labor-management group two years ago, before the legislation changed.
“When you read in the newspapers, you read everything else that’s going on in the state, this is a big deal” Hope said.