Teachers file unfair labor charge against Farmersville Unified

Farmersville Teachers Association claims administrators, superintendent retaliated against teachers for seeking union representation on working conditions

FARMERSVILLE – In between statements about salary negotiations, inflation, and student services, Farmersville Unified teachers who packed the school district board room March 22 made comments about the lack of leadership within the district. 

One of those speakers was Julie McIntosh, grievance chair for the Farmersville Teachers Association (FTA), who vaguely mentioned a pending labor issue as an example of the administration’s disconnect with site-level staff and their need for union representation. 

“[The California Teachers Association] has filed, on behalf of one of our teachers, an unfair labor practice charge because this teacher had engaged in union activity and then almost immediately started experiencing retribution,” McIntosh said. 

McIntosh was referring to Amy Koop, a special education teacher at Hester Elementary School, who notified her supervisor, Special Education Director Teena Earheart, of issues at her site and was then disciplined when her concerns materialized into complaints from parents. Both were identified in an unfair practice charge filed with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) on March 4.

In the document, the California Teachers Association (CTA) contends Earheart’s lack of management had become such an issue for special education teachers that the FTA issued a “Culture and Climate Survey” to union members about how the administrator’s management practices affected their working conditions. FTA intended to bring the survey to Superintendent Paul Sevillano in hopes of addressing the issues.

On Nov. 4, Sevillano responded to the survey results in a district wide email saying the district office does not support a survey or any other efforts to publicly evaluate the performance of any individual. It went on to say any data received from such a survey would not be considered by the district as part of a teacher’s evaluation or “continuous improvement.”

“Any individual, groups, and or organizations that support public evaluation of an employee via a survey will be held accountable for their actions,” Sevillano said. 

The next day, Ben Avila an area steward for the CTA, sent a letter to Sevillano saying his email was threatening to discipline union members for discussing working conditions, a protected activity under the Educational Employment Relations Act (EERA) and, more specifically, Government Code 3543.5(a) which makes it unlawful for a public school employer to “[i]mpose or threaten to impose reprisals on employees, to discriminate or threaten to discriminate against employees, or otherwise to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees because of their exercise of rights guaranteed by this chapter.” 

The California Teachers Association (CTA) carried the potential violations into an Unfair Practice Charge filed with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) against the district and its superintendent on March 4. PERB, a quasi-judicial agency overseeing labor issues between public agencies and their employees, ordered the district to cease and desist from threatening the FTA president and all other employees “engaging in the legitimate and legal action of communicating with one another concerning the actions of a supervisor regarding employees’ working conditions.”

Farmersville teacher Josanna Ocala said employee issues like these have cost the district nearly $200,000 in legal fees since February 2021, much more than the $66,000 similar sized districts like Lindsay Unified budget for legal fees in a year. 

“We can’t even remember one grievance having reached the mediation stage in Farmersville history. This year there were three,” Ocala said. “That means the teacher approached his or her supervisor twice, HR director and superintendent before even needing mediation. That is a lot of failed chances to solve the problem before attorneys were hired and before mediation.”

PERB confirmed the district has hired Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud and Romo of Fresno to represent them in the case, in addition to the district’s contract with Lozano Smith, another Fresno-based firm contracted as primary counsel for the district.

Year-long Dispute
The debate over the district’s actions in the pending case date back more than a year, when Koop complained to her supervisor about not having enough support for her students, such as substitute teachers and staffing levels, which had significantly increased her workload. On March 1, 2021, Koop sent a letter to Hester Principal Dannette Bryson and Earheart about the lack of administrative support for teaching special education students in the Transitional Kindergarten-1st Grade (TK-1) program and her belief that the school was inappropriately focusing resources on preschool programs at the expense of the TK-1 program. She also complained in a March 1 email about her supervisor’s failure to communicate with her and other staff about the scheduling of meetings and lack of or delayed responses to her emails concerning educational matters. 

On March 5, 2021, Sevillano met with Koop, two other special education teachers, and then FTA President Leslie Stewart to discuss the teacher’s concerns. This led to a March 19, 2021 meeting in which “All concerned participants agreed to re-double efforts to work as a team on the agreed-upon solutions,” according to the PERB document. 

On March 25, the supervisor presented the teacher with a Letter of Concern, the first step in the disciplinary process, which reprimanded the teacher for copying her FTA representative on a work-related email. PERB deemed the alleged incident to be false. 

By July, the teacher and several of her special education colleagues had had two meetings with Sevillano where they all expressed concerns about the supervisor’s management style and general communication problems. “One teacher said that he was looking for another job because of Earheart,” the PERB report stated. 

In August 2021, Koop filed a grievance with the FTA because a new schedule provided by the supervisor eliminated the teacher’s preparation period. This was after other grievances filed by Koop which claimed she had to work during lunch breaks, was scheduled for meetings and training on days designated for her to catch up on work, and required her to adhere to a written schedule, something the teacher claims no other special education teachers were required to do. 

On Oct. 1, 2021, the principal sent the teacher a revised schedule in which her case management day had been eliminated. This is a day used by special education teachers to ensure that student supports, assessments and accommodations are all being done in compliance with students’ individualized education program (IEP). On these days, special education teachers would typically attend special education staff meetings, schedule IEP’S by contacting all relevant parties, write lEPs, assess students for Special Education services, observe students that are being assessed, disseminate IEP information to general education teachers, collaborate with general education teachers and other service providers regarding students’ progress, prepare progress reports for parents, order classroom materials and supplies, and a myriad of other duties. Removing the case management day significantly increased the teacher’s work hours because she was not relieved of these duties, and her student caseload continued to increase. No other special education teacher was deprived of his/her case management day.

On Oct. 13, 2021, FTA grievance chair Julie Mclntosh filed a grievance against the district for retaliation after a meeting with the teacher and her supervisor to address the various incidents of retaliation against Koop. Sevillano denied the grievance on Dec. 1, 2021 so FTA sent the grievance to PERB.

In February, Koop’s initial complaint about the lack of support and resources being directed to special education at Hester resulted in a second letter of concern being issued to the teacher. The Feb. 3, 2022 letter cited a Oct. 29, 2021 letter from a parent who said they were pulling their special needs son out of Farmersville Unified because of the lack of structure, time, effort and education attainment and instead were going to homeschool him.

The teacher submitted a detailed rebuttal letter to the letter of concern on Feb. 12, 2022, complete with witness statements supporting her version of events. She noted she had only worked with the student five times in the last year, per the schedule provided by her supervisor, and that the parent did not express any issues during those times.

On Feb. 15, district administrators, Koop and her FTA representative attempted to mediate the disputes arising from the Letter of Concern and other matters. 

“Yet the District has refused to rescind any part of the [Letter of Concern],” Witherspoon stated in her PERB charge against the district.

The CTA attorney went on to say both disciplinary letters are considered retaliatory since the teacher is the person who brought the issues to the district and asked for a better schedule and more resources. 

“In retaliation, [the supervisor] violated the collective bargaining agreement with respect to Koop’s work day and assignments,” the PERB report stated. “The District’s February 3, 2022, Letter of Concern constitutes improper retaliation and discrimination against [the teacher] for her participation in protected activity.” 

PERB Process
Sevillano confirmed the district has received the unfair practice charge filed with PERB but he was unable to comment as the district is in the process of writing a response to the CTA’s charges.

“We have no other comment on this actively litigated matter,” Sevillano said.

Felix De La Torre, general counsel for PERB, said the Unfair Practices Charge filed by CTA is a preliminary step in the process. PERB has assigned a Sacramento attorney, known as PERB agent, to begin reviewing the labor case as soon as PERB receives a formal response to the charges from Farmersville Unified. Once both sides have presented their evidence, the PERB agent will issue a warning to the district, a complaint against the district, or dismiss the teachers union’s case. 

If there are enough facts to determine an unfair practice may have been committed, the agent will issue a complaint, which triggers an informal settlement conference. If a settlement cannot be reached by the two parties, a formal hearing is scheduled to appear before an administrative law judge. Similar to a court trial, formal records are kept, witnesses will testify under oath, evidence will be presented and legal arguments will be made before the judge issues a ruling. The losing party will then have 20 days to apparel the ruling to the actual Public Employment Relations Board of directors. 

For more information on the process, visit www.perb.ca.gov

Start typing and press Enter to search