Jul 29, 2014
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Letter to the Editor: Webb Explains 'Past Practice'

Neshaminy School Board President Ritchie Webb discusses

Letter to the Editor: Webb Explains 'Past Practice' Letter to the Editor: Webb Explains 'Past Practice'

Editor's note: The following letter was submitted to Patch by Neshaminy School Board President Ritchie Webb.

Neshaminy residents are already aware of the "equal say" doctrine within our teacher’s contract and how that practice is used to protect the status quo, often to the detriment of our students and district. However, there is another aspect to the contract that is often overlooked by the public even though it every bit as powerful, if not more so, than equal say. The other contractual issue I am referring to is past practice, which in combination with equal say is what gives the NFT de facto veto power over administration.

Section 11-1: Except as this Agreement shall otherwise provide, all terms and conditions of employment applicable on the effective date of this Agreement to Employees covered by this Agreement or as established by the rules, regulations and/or policies of the Board in force on said date, unless altered by this Agreement, shall continue to be so applicable during the term of this Agreement. Unless otherwise provided in this Agreement, nothing contained herein shall be interpreted and/or applied so as to eliminate, reduce nor otherwise detract from any teacher a benefit existing prior to its effective date. 

The above language is the gold standard of past practice language, and it is what NFT leaders are desperately trying to protect. What does it mean? What are the implications? What is its purpose?

Basically, the past practice language states that any working condition (anything a teacher is expected to do or influences their standing) not specifically addressed in CBA language is in a state of 'status quo' without prior agreement from the union. The intent is to give the union power over any change in working rules, regulations, expectations, and procedures that involve teachers. This power extends from something as simple as a daily building level procedure to school board policies. While the union's power may not be immediate, the past practice language makes almost everything ‘grievable’ as a change in teachers’ working conditions placing the final decision-making authority in the hands of an arbitrator. 

Some examples of problematic changes of working conditions:

  1.  Implementing a teacher dress code
  2.  Mandatory participation in the On-line Teacher Gradebook for parent communication Requiring teachers to wear IDs
  3.  Requiring teachers to maintain their webpage
  4. Requiring teachers to Sign in/Sign Out of work
  5. Requiring teachers to produce lesson plans in a common format
  6. Changing the present observation and evaluation process for teachers 

Think of the past practice language as similar to the Tenth Amendment of the US Constitution which states,

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

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The language limits the power of the Federal government by reserving anything not specifically stated in the Constitution as a State's right and empowers the Supreme Court as the decision-maker in all disputes. The past practice language does the same thing for the teachers' union that the Constitution does for the States in terms of limiting power of the district putting the final decision in the hands of a third party. While it may be a great way to run a country, it creates significant obstacles to any organization attempting to innovate and change rapidly.

"...all terms and conditions .... as established by rules, regulations and/or policies...in force...shall continue to be applicable ....." 

".... nothing .... shall be interpreted and/or applied so as to eliminate, reduce nor otherwise detract from any teacher a benefit existing prior ...." 

Translation: 

  1. Teacher autonomy and choice are protected as "a benefit” because such choice may have existed in the past. The choice to wear what they like to work because they have had such choice in the past; the choice to use the district established gradebook and parent reporting software or not; the choice to continue their individual choice on anything they may have had choice on in the past.
  2. Status quo on teacher work rules, expectations, responsibilities, and procedures 
  3. Union authority is established to police and grieve practices established without its involvement potentially placing the final decision on anything new or different in the hands of an arbitrator. Thereby forcing the district into a decision to either involve the union in any change that impacts teachers (i.e. negotiate daily) or prepare for the time and expense of the grievance process potentially leaving the decision in the hands of an arbitrator.
  4. And the kicker, the union retains power over any committee recommendation (even if teachers have equal voice and status), if such recommendation could in anyway change a "…rule, regulation and/ or policy…" that may "…eliminate, reduce or detract from ANY teacher a benefit existing prior."  It iss clear that even teachers do not have “equal voice or status” when it comes to changing existing conditions without NFT consent.

The result: gridlock and status quo unless there is negotiations with and acceptance by the teachers’ union on each change.

Throughout these negotiations, this school board has committed itself not only to financial reform, but also to vital improvements that will set our district on a path to future success. That is why we regard past practice and equal say every bit as important as we do the economic aspects of this contract. And while we are eager to resolve this impasse as soon as possible, we will not make concessions that preserve the status quo.

It is time for a change in Neshaminy, and we appreciate the continued support of the public as we deliver on this important promise to our parents, tax payers, and most importantly of all, our students.

Ritchie Webb
Neshaminy School Board President

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