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Richmond Public Schools teachers and staff first in Virginia to win collective bargaining rights

People stand with signs and raised fists
People with the Richmond Education Association rally in favor of collective bargaining for Richmond teachers which was approved by the School Board on Monday. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Richmond City Public Schools became the first locality in Virginia to award its teachers and staff collective bargaining rights at a school board meeting on Monday.

Eight of the nine board members, Elizabeth Doerr, Cheryl Burke, Mariah White, Stephanie Rizzi, Dawn Page, Kenya Gibson, Shonda Harris-Muhammed, and Nicole Jones, voted in favor of the motion to accept the collective bargaining proposal. Jonathan Young was the only board member to vote in opposition.

Hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members attended the school board meeting to support the proposal. Dozens of supporters offered public comments in favor of the proposal, including Rachelle Ruffner, a sixth grade teacher at River City Middle School.

“After a long and draining day, we still are showing up and showing out because we can't continue to be ignored,” Ruffner said. “Teachers who are tired of being passed over in regards to their pay, and their hours, their job safety and their mental health for themselves and their families.”

For 44 years, state law banned collective bargaining for public sector workers like school teachers.  Since winning the General Assembly, Democrats have advanced legislation to strengthen workers rights, and one of those laws lifted the long-standing ban when  it came into effect in May.

The proposal that school board members approved gives employees the right to negotiate their wages, hours, benefits, safety, and other terms and conditions of their employment.

Teachers and parents at the meeting said changes are desperately needed in all of these areas, including Samantha Jaffe, a resident elementary school teacher working in Richmond Public Schools. She said until changes are made, the district will continue to lose talented educators.

“I have already seen several experienced and qualified teachers leave not due to lack of love for the students but explicitly due to lack of administrative support,” Jaffe said. “We have been asked to pick up more and more responsibility with no clear justification for the well being of our students. The amazingly talented and wise teachers I'm working with have expressed to me that if it weren't for the students, they would have walked out long ago.”

Board member Rizzi emphasized the connection between teacher satisfaction and learning outcomes in voicing her support of the proposal.

“We must always remember  our workers’ working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” Rizzi said.

Young said he voted against the proposal because he said it doesn’t go far enough in establishing autonomy for teachers.

“I fail to see how collective bargaining doesn't substitute one arcane, hierarchical, bureaucratic process in favor of another,” Young said.

Before school board members cast their votes on this proposal, they debated whether it was appropriate to vote on the proposal without further review by the full committee. Page claimed  the process was rushed and needed further discussion, but members of the ad hoc committee who helped draft the proposal objected, and said that board members had ample time to review both the proposal and the ad hoc committee meeting footage.

Now that the school board has granted teachers and staff the right to collectively bargain, school employees must present a statement certifying that at least 30% of employees want to be represented by a bargaining unit, or union. Once that’s done, employees will hold a secret ballot election to determine who will represent them in negotiations with administrators. That will most likely be the Richmond Education Association, who were involved in drafting the proposal and organized a rally in support of it before the meeting on Monday.

Once a representative is chosen, negotiations will begin within 60 days.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote by Stephanie Rizzi comparing working conditions and learning conditions to Shonda Harris-Muhammed. We apologize for the error. We also misspelled Rachelle Ruffner's name and have corrected it.