A battle is brewing in the tiny town of Deerfield in western Kansas, where some teachers want to part ways with the nation’s largest teachers union.
“They’re supposed to represent the best interests of teachers, but that is clearly not the case,” said Joel McClure, a social studies teacher at Deerfield High School, a Class 1A school about 20 miles west of Garden City.
Late last year, McClure filed a petition on behalf of the newly formed Deerfield Educators requesting a vote by the district’s teachers on whether to part ways with the Kansas National Education Association.
Union officials objected, saying McClure did not file the petition by a Dec. 1 deadline. McClure said he filed it in November. Both sides are awaiting a ruling by the Kansas Department of Labor.
“The only contentiousness here is that which was raised by the competing organization,” said David Schauner, general counsel for the KNEA. “I believe some of our members were misled, and … when the smoke clears, you’ll find that we will have retained our rights as bargaining representative.”
At issue is whether the state’s largest teachers union should remain the exclusive bargaining representative for teachers in Deerfield, a district of about 250 students.
In Deerfield, as in Wichita and most other Kansas school districts, local union representatives meet with district officials to negotiate the teachers’ yearly contract. Typical topics during contract talks include teacher pay, workload and professional development requirements.
McClure, a former union member who now belongs to the Kansas Association of American Educators, says he and many of his colleagues are frustrated by a union that he says doesn’t reflect their political views or their thoughts on education policy and process.
Of the 27 certified teachers in Deerfield, five are members of the Deerfield Teachers Association, an affiliate of the KNEA, he said. That figure could not be confirmed because union membership lists are not public.
Amy Griffin, president of the Deerfield Teachers Association, did not return e-mails or telephone calls seeking comment.
“The desire is for teachers to participate at the (bargaining) table, to have free access to information,” McClure said. “In our little school district, there’s no reason we can’t sit down at the table and work out our issues.
“There has never been one time where the board of education has not supported a raise or some kind of other benefit for teachers,” he said. “They are not the enemy, and some treat school board members as though they were.”
If the state approves McClure’s petition, Deerfield teachers would vote on whether to stay with the KNEA or operate independently.
Barbara Hersh, communications director for the Kansas Department of Labor, would not comment or respond to questions about the process because it is a pending case.
Schauner, the KNEA general counsel, disputed allegations that the union is “stonewalling” teachers in Deerfield.
“We’d much prefer to hold an election and move on,” he said. “It’s not my fault that the competing organization couldn’t get their stuff filed in time.”
In 2009, the teachers union in Riley County voted to decertify from the KNEA and its national affiliate. Teachers formed a new organization, Riley County Educators, which was appointed the official negotiating representative for the district.
“Their standard mode of operation is to try to put up whatever roadblocks they can to keep it from happening,” said Garry Sigle, who led the Riley County effort as a teacher and now is executive director of the Kansas Association of American Educators. “They don’t want other groups to find out that they can get along without the NEA.”
Sigle’s group, known as KANAAE, describes itself as a nonunion, nonpartisan professional organization. Critics have accused it of being anti-union and anti-public education.
Sigle said the Riley County and Deerfield teachers are just “the latest in a nationwide movement of teachers away from union affiliation and toward a more self-governed approach.”
Schauner downplayed the significance of the dispute in Deerfield.
“I think there’s a cow that’s escaped in a western Kansas town, too, if you want to go check into that,” he said.
In a report last year, NEA officials acknowledged a nationwide decline in membership, citing changing teacher demographics and attempts by some states to restrict collective bargaining rights for public employees.
However, they also cited research that shows most teachers still value unions. In a survey last year by Education Sector, a Washington think tank, 81 percent of K-12 teachers surveyed said they believed that without a union, teachers “would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power.”
“The fact is, we still represent all but a very small number of local organizations in the state,” Schauner said.
“Had KNEA not been involved in politics this year, every teacher in the state would have suffered a loss of their rights to bargain, to be represented and have a say in the terms of their employment,” he said. “Politics are, in fact, at the root of all good things that teachers have available to them.”
Teachers union officials noted that Kansas is a right-to-work state, meaning individual employees can join unions voluntarily, but unions cannot force membership across entire worksites.
Nevertheless, union membership is increasing in Wichita, said Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita. He declined to say how many of the district’s 4,000 teachers belong to the union.
“It’s a choice to be a member, but even the people who choose not to be members have a part of the process,” Mousley said. In Wichita, members and nonmembers have input on surveys about working conditions and vote whether to ratify contracts, he said.
“I don’t see this (Deerfield dispute) as a threat. It’s not even a concern,” Mousley said. “Somebody got mad because they didn’t get their way.
“I don’t want to see them leave KNEA, but good luck to them, being a small number of people, being able to negotiate on their own.”
McClure, the Deerfield teacher, said he’s confident a majority of teachers will vote to cut ties with the state and national unions. Negotiations for next year’s contract, which normally start about this time each year, are on hold until the state officials decide on the petition.
“All we want is the opportunity to go to the ballot box,” McClure said. “If they would just let us vote, we could move forward.”