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Taconic Hills bans union rep from meetings

Jan 08, 2011 3:18 pm
Talk about local indications of the growing national trend of union-bashing that's been building in recent years. John Mason reports in the Register Star today that a labor relationships specialist for Taconic Hills Central School District teachers and staff has been barred from entering school grounds without the permission of Superintendent Mark Sposato.

In a Jan. 3 letter, Sposato told Pamela Melville, an attorney with the New York State United Teachers, “Your behavior at the meeting of the Taconic Hills Central School District Board of Education meeting held on Dec. 22, 2010 was disruptive, belligerent, condescending and disrespectful. As a Labor Relations Specialist for NYSUT, a prominent statewide organization, your actions were inexcusable, unprofessional and will not be tolerated.” Melville works with both the faculty association and the support staff association. A former Canaan town judge, she has been a labor advocate for 20 years, a labor and employment lawyer for more than 11 years and a field rep for 10. “When I do my job, anybody who knows me can tell you I am an utmost professional,” she said. “One of my guidelines in what I do is to maintain civility.” Melville said she will be filing a notice of claim and an improper practice charge because “the superintendent and district don’t have the authority to keep me off the grounds, or to interfere in my role as the representative for the Faculty and Support Staff associations.”

In his Jan. 3 letter, Sposato goes on to say that, due to her actions, Melville will not be allowed on school property “for any reason, including meetings, school functions or activities, without prior permission from the Superintendent of Schools. If you fail to confirm prior approval, the police will be called, you will be removed from the premise, and a complaint for trespass will be sworn out. Regards, Mark A. Sposato, Superintendent of Schools.”

Robert Freeman of the New York State Committee on Open Government said “the only people that have a right to attend executive sessions are members of the board.” He added that “there’s nothing in the law that requires officials to respond to any question.”

However, he said, Melville “should have the same privilege of the floor as any other member of the public. I don’t think the superintendent or the board have the ability to preclude any member of the public from attending an open meeting.”

On Dec. 22, Melville spoke to the board during the public forum, the second item on the agenda. She said she had three items to address.

The first, she said, was a planned executive session to hear grievances of the Taconic Hills Support Staff Association. She noted that the THSSA had not been invited. As she was speaking, Board President Ron Morales interrupted her, saying, “We’re done.”

“Did the board vote to exclude ...” Melville began.

“What are you not understanding?” Morales asked.

“We made an information request ...” Melville began.

“We are done,” Morales said. “We read this,” he said, indicating paperwork Melville had distributed to the board members. “This is not required.”

“I believe this is the public opportunity,” Melville said. “The last item is on page 6, Financials — Contracts ...” At this point, Morales asked to have her removed and Sposato said he would call the police and left the room.

Melville said, “Please exclude the association when you do act on it. Thank you,” and sat down.

Later on in the meeting, a state trooper appeared and stood at the back of the room.

According to draft minutes of the meeting obtained by the Register-Star, “Ms. Melville, NYSUT Representative, referred to three items listed on the agenda for approval and asked the board to table them at this time.”

Sposato said it was due to her actions on that day that she must obtain his permission to enter school property. Asked what she did that was “disruptive, belligerent, condescending or disrespectful,” he said it was “an expression of what took place,” but that he missed some of it because he was out of the room.

Subsequent to the Jan. 3 letter, Faculty Association President Kevin Reis requested permission from Sposato for Melville to attend a meeting of teachers that had been scheduled weeks earlier. The superintendent refused, saying she had to ask him herself.

Melville’s first item at the Dec. 22 meeting was about the decision not to include the Support Staff Association in the Executive Session, as had been the past practice.

The questions she intended to ask the board, according to information sheets she gave the board, were:

“When did the board decide it would review grievance #4 and #5 without the THHSA present?” and

“Is the board aware that the THHSA made a request for documents and information related to grievance #4 2010-11?”

And she intended to ask that those documents be shared with the association, and that the board reschedule the review of the grievances to a future time.

She noted that, according to contract, the decision of whether to meet with the grievant and his/her representative is up to the board’s discretion. But she wondered whether the board had sufficient information to make this decision. Usually, she told the Register-Star, the union prepares a packet, with supporting documents, copies of the contract, “everything needed for an informed decision.”

In this case, she said, the heads of the Support Staff Association, Donald Simmons and Joseph Argus, had just received an email the day before the meeting saying the grievance would be heard and the union presence was not required, so there had not been time to prepare a packet.

“I asked [the board] to table it because they didn’t have the information to make the decision whether the grievance should be voted on or not,” Melville said.

Sposato said he sends every grievance, at every level, to the board, and “the board lets us know how they’ll proceed. The board lets us know if they need the support staff there.”

In this case, he said, Morales informed him the support staff would not be required.

The second item concerned a grievance over hiring procedure. The board was accepting a bid from an individual.

“None of us could find where they had done an RFP,” Melville said. “How did this person end up being the sole bidder? We think it should be a union position, not from an outside source.”

Sposato said the person in question has never had anything to do with the Support Staff Association.

“It was a middle management association job,” he said. “It’s always been there — she’s been here more than 20 years.” He added that the position was advertised.

Her third item had to do with a change in vacation accruals.

Support staff discovered they had earned and unused vacation days that hadn’t been showing up on their paystubs, Sposato said. The total vacation days accumulated expire at a certain date, so employees were in danger of losing those days.

The administration came up with the idea of extending the sick leave another full year. The annual vacation time allotment would be changed from date of hire to July 1.

“I spoke to Joe Argus and Donald Simmons,” Sposato said. “They were in support. I said we’d take it to the board. If Donny and Joey still want to sign it ... their people won’t lose [the accrued days] at the end of June.”

Melville told the board she thought it was bad faith to approve a memorandum of agreement to which the THSSA has not agreed, and “a violation of the district’s obligation to bargain in good faith for the superintendent to present an agreement to you that has not been negotiated with or agreed to by the THSSA.”

“Please table this resolution,” reads her Dec. 22 statement to the board. “We wish to avoid having to litigate the board participating in the superintendent’s bad faith acts by approving this document.”

Speaking to the Register-Star, she said, “The union has the responsibility to investigate whether that will hurt anybody and whether it’s the right decision for the bargaining unit. Wouldn’t this be raised at bargaining? We don’t want items to be raised piecemeal.”

Sposato said he deals with Argus, Simmons and Reis, not with Melville. NYSUT, he said, is just an advisory body.

Reis agreed that, when push comes to shove, the local has the final decision, but he said he relies on Melville’s experience.

“She represents 13 different districts,” he said. “She has years of experience handling this. I’ve been president for six months.”

Regarding her expulsion from the meeting and the resulting letter, Melville said, “My thought was, ‘Why would the superintendent be doing this?’ Because there were at least 50 witnesses — 32 faculty — with standing room only, who witnessed what took place. I don’t know but if what this letter has done has opened the door for the community to question who is running Taconic Hills Central School District.”

Melville said the Faculty Association would be creating an action plan regarding the numerous violations of contract that have been occurring at Taconic Hills resulting in grievances and improper practice charges.

“We’ll put a plan on paper to show the board what we’re dealing with in terms of the contract,” she said, “how the union’s efforts to resolve its issues with the district, through the superintendent, were rebuffed or left unaddressed. I think the gloves are off.”

She said limiting her access to the school is changing past practices and would be addressed by the Public Employees Relations Board.
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