Editor's note: Representatives from both Albemarle County Public Schools and the Albemarle Education Association let us know that they are negotiating a collective bargaining resolution, to outline how the employment contract will be negotiated. An earlier version of this report used the term “contract” where it would be more precise to say “resolution” or “agreement.” We've edited the report on Oct. 16 to make the language more clear.

Just when collective bargaining was supposed to begin, the teachers' union suspended talks with Albemarle County Public Schools. And they're not budging. 

The Albemarle Education Association (AEA) wants Albemarle schools to remove a handful of provisions in their proposed bargaining resolution — the document that lays out the rules both parties will abide by while negotiating teachers' contracts, including pay, benefits and more. And the AEA says it will not return to the bargaining table until the district complies. 

Dozens of people wearing red chanted, “We stand together!” minutes before flooding the auditorium at the Albemarle County Office Building at a Sept. 14 School Board meeting. Supporters took to the podium to address their disdain for the school system's demands — which, according to the union, are that the AEA re-verify and redefine the employees who are part of the union, and hold an in-person election to confirm its place as a bargaining unit. School officials also want a clause in the resolution that grants the district one-sided power to finalize contracts.

“What they're asking for is not collective bargaining,” said Vernon Liechti, president of the AEA. “It doesn't seem like they are trying to make this resolution a good one.”

After walking out of negotiations at the end of August, the Albemarle union announced that the union would not return to negotiations until the school district removed these provisions from the resolution.

Dexter Auction asked Albemarle County School Board Chair Judy Le on several occasions why the School Board wanted the provisions to be included in the resolution. She said that she would not discuss the negotiations publicly. 

“I don't want to undermine our negotiation or negotiate outside of our negotiation room,” Le said.

More about Albemarle County Public Schools

She added that the School Board is willing to negotiate the resolution's provisions — including the four that the AEA have said they want removed — but only if the union returns to the table.

“It is a give and take,” Le said. “We plan to negotiate, when they come back to negotiate. But give and take can only happen if both parties are there.”

The negotiation breakdown comes about six months after the district agreed to collectively bargain contracts with the education union. And the School Board and union have been working since June to come to a consensus on how they should embark on bargaining.

Dexter Auction spoke with a labor and union expert and a state level education union advisor about the AEA's deal breakers.

The first: Albemarle schools wants to verify the union's authorization cards, or the documents school employees sign that give the union permission to bargain for them.

AEA first got the cards from a majority of the workers in the district in May 2022. But at that time, the School Board declined to participate in collective bargaining. When the AEA tried again last February, the School Board agreed, but did not take steps to confirm the cards.

We plan to negotiate, when they come back to negotiate. But give and take can only happen if both parties are there.

-Judy Le, Albemarle County Public Schools Board chair

Typically, the employer and the union would sit down and verify the list of cards together or select an employee to do the confirmations, said Amanda Kail, statewide organization specialist for the Virginia Education Association, the parent association to the AEA. If there are issues with trust between the two parties, oftentimes they will hire a neutral third party, such as union specialists, to do the verifications.

But why the district decided to do the verification now rather than in May when the union first collected and submitted the cards, Kail does not know. She speculates that it could be a deliberate move by the school district to hold the process up, which she said is “ridiculous.”

“The workers did the work. Assuming that their workers didn't understand what they were signing, again, just speaks to me of not honoring this democratic process,” said Kail.

Second, the Board's proposed resolution asks the union to have at least 66% of workers present — in person — for a bidding election. That means two-thirds of the district's employees must show up to affirm they wish the AEA to be their official bargaining group.

AEA President Liechti and Kail each said hosting an election like this is not typical for public workers. Most do not. The only school district in Virginia to do this was Prince William County Public Schools. The district asked the Prince William Education Association to have at least 50% of each of the two bargaining units present for their election, according to InsideNoVa, and each unit came with massive majorities. About 95% of employees in the state classified workers, such as teachers and specialists, voted in support of the union.

Third, the School Board wants to limit which workers could participate in collective bargaining. The board proposed excluding administrators, office employees within human resources, and office associates connected to the superintendent’s cabinet and chief technology officers, said Liechti.

And fourth, the School Board wants the resolution to allow the Board to implement changes in case of emergency, such as a natural disaster, or if the Board were to vote on a new a policy. Those changes would be implemented by Albemarle schools only, rather than with the union, said Liechti. That is also something AEA is unwilling to do. 

“Saying you don't trust the employees, saying there's this 66% requirement of turnout of voters, saying you can overturn a contract at any point, it kind of defeats the whole point,” said Kail.

The walkout shocked the School Board and “brought the progress toward adoption of a collective bargaining agreement to a stop,” Le said in her statement. Despite it all, Le said that Albemarle schools remains committed to the negotiation process.

Collective bargaining returned to the state in 2020, after 40 years of it being illegal for public workers in Virginia. The new law allows local governments to grant unions of their own employees the right to negotiate their contracts and advocate for better working conditions. So far, six school districts, including Charlottesville City Schools, have passed resolutions while nine others are working toward an agreement or are collecting authorization cards. Richmond Public Schools is the only school division to have agreed to a contract with its union.

The bargaining process is new for everyone in the state. In Albemarle, it seems that school leaders are trying to find their footing, said J.H. “Rip” Verkerke, professor of employment law at the University of Virginia. Based on what Verkerke has seen of the resolution negotiations, he said Albemarle officials seem to be having mixed feelings about bargaining. They also appear uncomfortable with the idea of actually conferring with their workers and the power they may lose if they do, both Verkerke and Kail said.

“It seems the School Board wants to have the appearance of a union without giving the teachers’ union the authority that accompanies genuine collective representation,” Verkerke said.

When the AEA first tried to push for collective bargaining, county schools said no. Instead, they implemented the Employee Voice and Action Committee, a space for workers to voice their concerns to Albemarle schools without having the power to collectively bargain their contracts. The union continued pushing, and Albemarle eventually yielded after seeing other school systems in the state agree to the collective bargaining.

Pressure from other school divisions could influence Albemarle schools to be more open about bargaining, said Verkerke.

For instance, Charlottesville City Schools passed its resolution two months prior to county schools. The Charlottesville Education Association and City Schools agreed to embark on negotiations for all their workers by dividing them into two employee groups: one for licensed employees (such as teachers) and another for all other workers (such as crossing guards and office workers).

“We’re in the midst of a critical teacher shortage at many schools,” said Verkerke. “To attract and retain staff, Albemarle needs to offer comparable working conditions, pay, and benefits. So long as a significant fraction of teachers want union representation, Albemarle will feel pressure to match what Charlottesville offers.”

Both Verkerke and Kail agree that it will be difficult for the school division and the union to continue collective bargaining because of the walkout.

The needs of the union are justified, said Kail, but there is going to have to be a compromise from both ends in order to progress on the bargaining contract.

“I think if the School Board can really step back and proceed in a way that shows that, in fact, they do trust their employees, then I'm sure that the Albemarle Education Association will be able to sit back down with the School Board and hammer out a resolution,” said Kail. “It may not have everything that everybody wants, but it'll be something that everyone can live with.”

The School Board and the union were expected to have another meeting Sept. 26, but did not in light of the walkout. The Albemarle Education Association said on X (formerly Twitter) that it will not engage until the School Board has “a more inclusive table.

I'm Dexter Auction's education and families reporter. Reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Also, subscribe to our newsletter! C’mon, it’s free.