Professional Educators of Tennessee Fight Union “Official Time” Privelege

Professional Educators of Tennessee  (PET), the premiere nonunion, independent professional teacher organization in Tennessee, is launching a campaign to eradicate a practice that has long allowed union officials to grab taxpayer money to pay for union business.   John C. Bowman, Executive Director for PET, is determined to showcase the differences between PET and the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA).

TEA has negotiated agreements with local school boards which dictate that union officials who are employed by the school district be granted unlimited free time to conduct union business while on district time, paid by district funds.  Of course, these funds ultimately come from the taxpayer. 

Declining membership numbers has made this practice even more valuable to union officials, who have less and less dues money to work with.  A taxpayer handout allows officials to simultaneously save money to put to other uses, and increase union membership. 

PET has deplored this practice, and supports legislation which would abolish the practice, and allow teachers the freedom to teach without the shackles of union membership – and union dues, if they do not wish to join a union. 

Tom Humphrey has the story in

This, Bowman wrote, is “surprising for a union with rapidly declining membership and in a state with a supermajority of Republican legislators” and “certainly bodes well for continued partisanship from the union.”

PET is pushing two Republican-sponsored bills that target what Bowman calls “special privileges” for TEA and its affiliates.

One (SB866) would repeal a current state law that requires local school systems to grant unpaid leave to a teacher serving as statewide president of a “professional employees association” with more than 25,000 members, which effectively means TEA. Gera Summerford, TEA’s current president, is on leave from her job as a Sevier County math teacher.

The other (SB867) says a local school system cannot pay a teacher for “duties as a representative of a professional employees’ organization.”

Bowman says this would prohibit taxpayer dollars from going to a union with political interests, as is now the case at MNEA. Wrye says that half of the MNEA president’s pay is paid by the school system, but the arrangement is by mutual agreement.

He said the bill could also block unpaid leave for TEA affiliate presidents such as Knox County Education Association’s Sherry Morgan.

The bills, Wrye (TEA lobbyist) said, are “silly and petty.”

Both organizations proclaim themselves as nonpartisan, though TEA’s political action committee has historically provided far more funding to Democratic legislative candidates than to Republicans. PET has no PAC and prefers to stay out of politics, said Bowman, who describes himself personally as “a free market conservative — but I don’t identify with any party.”

TEA’s membership has fallen in recent years. Mitchell Johnson, TEA’s interim executive director, says it now stands at about 46,000 — including retired teachers and college student members — from a high of about 55,000. The decline, he says, ties into the law banning collective bargaining enacted after Republicans took solid control of the General Assembly in 2011.

The decline in dues-paying members has meant cuts to staff, mostly by not filling vacated positions, Johnson said. He said TEA now has 53 staffers, down from a high of about 70.