State Democratic lawmakers, labor leaders and even a few Metro parents ripped Director of Schools Jesse Register’s stance on unions Tuesday night, delivering blow after blow to a superintendent they say unilaterally closed the door on support staff workers.
On Valentine’s Day, many of the some 200 union supporters who overflowed Metro’s school board meeting held red placards that read, “Have a heart.” As it stands, they fear custodians, groundskeepers and bus drivers have lost a voice inside Nashville’s public schools.
“We want our employees out here to have the same rights that other Metro employees have had,” Democratic state Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory told Register and school board members.
“Nashville is unique in this country. It has never had a lot of labor management troubles. There is no need to start this now.”
At issue is Register’s recent decision to do away with the district’s 12-year-old “memoranda of understanding” policy in dealing with the Service Employees International Union, which represents custodians and groundskeepers, and the United Steelworkers union, comprised of school bus drivers.
Union leaders have called the MOU agreement a “meet and confer” policy. But Register scrapped the non-binding statute by adopting a new Support Staff Handbook, a move the district claims is authorized. Others say he overreached his power.
“If you want to change the handbook, there’s no reason not to meet with employee representatives and discuss this,” said Deborah Dial, a Metro high school support staff worker.
“You discuss things with parent groups. You discuss things with business groups. You discuss things with educational groups,” Dial said. “So why can’t you do it with the people who actually make the school run?”
Despite such pleas, Register indicated he doesn’t plan to change his position on support staff unions. “At this point in time, no,” he told reporters following a lengthy public hearing.
Register also took time to “clarify” his position, adding that he’s concerned about all the “misinformation” about the district’s practices. Contrary to accusations, he said, employees aren’t required to reapply for positions at the end of the school year.
“This is not an issue with our employees or how we feel about our employees,” Register said. “We value our employees. With think they’re very important.
“It’s a matter of operating procedures where we had an old employee handbook and two MOUs –– one with the steelworkers and one with SEIU,” he said. “They just weren’t compatible. We had ineffective practices as a result of that.”
Register’s relationship with support staff unions has been strained since 2010 when he led the outsourcing of more than 600 custodians and reduction of hours for bus drivers. Mayor Karl Dean, the Metro Council and school board approved those same measures.
The nine-member school board is the one body that could presumably direct Register to change his MOU stance, but if it would do so is unclear.
School board vice chair Mark North said he “appreciates [union supporters] coming to us” and that he wants to ensure district officials “treat all of our employees with respect and appreciation.”
Still, asked whether the board would take a vote to change Register’s union policy, North said, “I don’t know.”
Tuesday’s school board came one week after the Metro Council voted 29-5 to urge Register to comply with provisions outlined in the district’s labor negotiation policy, established in 2000, a document in which the MOU policy is written.
Council members who attended Tuesday’s board meeting were Fabian Bedne, Karen Johnson, Jason Potts, Brady Banks and Scott Davis. Conservative Councilman Steve Glover was also there, telling Register that he was fully within his bounds to change the MOU policy.
Louder presence, however, came from Nashville’s state House Democrats. Turner, as well as Reps. Brenda Gilmore and Gary Moore, delivered remarks to the board on behalf of unions. Democratic state Rep. Mike Stewart was also in attendance.
Gilmore noted how Register has seemingly taken a new Tennessee law that stripped teachers’ unions of their ability to collectively bargain, and applied it to support staff leaders.
“The intent of that legislation does not affect support employees,” Gilmore said. “It affects licensed, professional employees only.”
• In other business, the school board voted to renew the district’s contract with Teach For America, the national teacher recruitment program that turns young, idealistic college graduates into teachers in low-performing schools.
Under the new agreement, Metro has agreed to double the number of TFA teachers  who enter Metro classes from 50 to a maximum of 80 to 100.