The General Assembly has finally passed a budget, and the Nutmeg Board of Education has been spared the catastrophic cuts in state aid that some had predicted. Veteran Board member Bob Bombast was therefore pleased to turn his attention to weightier matters: the appearance of the teachers in Nutmeg and that of their classrooms. Bob had seen a video on YouTube of an admiral exhorting a graduating class to make their beds every morning as a key to their success, and he decided that greater discipline among teachers would be beneficial to them and to the students they teach. Based on that inspirational video, Bob came up with a new initiative for the Board of Education to consider.

Under Committee Reports, Bob unveiled his vision for a more effective school system, the “Tidy Teacher Initiative.” “A neatly-dressed teacher in a tidy classroom will be the foundation for greater achievement of students in the Nutmeg Public Schools,” Bob announced grandly. “I have been concerned that teacher dress in Nutmeg has devolved from Business Casual to College Grunge, hardly the way to inspire our students. And don’t get me started on the mess and clutter in some classrooms! Under my plan, we will establish standards for orderly classrooms and well-dressed teachers. Our classrooms will have perfectly aligned chairs, neatly stacked books and supplies, and counters free of clutter. Our teachers will be neatly-dressed in well-shined shoes. A retired Navy Seal will train each of our building administrators on how to inspect their classrooms and their teachers to assure that they comply with these new standards.”

Mr. Superintendent had seen worse ideas in his career, and he went ahead faithfully to execute Bob’s plan. In consultation with the retired Navy Seal Bob had recommended, Mr. Superintendent drafted regulations for how teachers would now be expected to dress and to maintain their classrooms, down to detailed instructions on how to stack books and straighten chairs at the end of each day. After their training, the building administrators went ahead with the prescribed classroom inspections that Bob envisioned, and almost every teacher in the district flunked the initial inspection. However, Mr. Superintendent directed the principals to give the teachers another chance to pass before writing them up.

Tom Teacher, President of the Nutmeg Union of Teachers, spoke to this issue during Public Comment at the Board meeting last evening. “Once again, Bob Bombast and the Board are micro-managing and violating the rights of teachers. We must insist that the Nutmeg Public Schools immediately stop implementing this ill-advised and illegal plan. If you don’t, we will be filing a charge with the State Labor Board.”

“Go ahead and file,” Bob responded. “The Board has every right to go ahead with the Tidy Teacher Initiative. Maintaining standards for teacher dress and neat classrooms is a basic management right.”

Tom Teacher started to respond, but Mr. Chairman ruled that he was out of order. However, Tom Teacher did get the other Board members wondering whether NUTS really did have a valid claim.

Should the Nutmeg Board of Education rescind the Tidy Teacher Initiative? If so, why and for how long?

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While the Nutmeg Board of Education has the management right to establish standards, it must establish those standards without violating the rights of its unionized employees. Here, by implementing the Tidy Teacher Initiative, the Board unilaterally changed working conditions in Nutmeg, thereby violating the Teacher Negotiation Act.

In a union setting, the employer must negotiate with the union over “wages, hours and conditions of employment.” Before an employer unilaterally changes working conditions in a union workplace, it must negotiate with the union over such proposed changes. To be sure, starting with the seminal Connecticut Supreme Court case West Hartford Education Association v. DeCourcy (1972), management decisions that lie “at the core of entrepreneurial control” are management rights not subject to negotiations, such as adding or eliminating programs and positions. Put another way, it is management’s right to decide what will be done, but it is the union’s right to negotiate on behalf of employees over how it will be done. Thus, if an employer wants to change working conditions, it must negotiate over the proposed change or, if the change is a management right, over the impact of the change.

Not every change in the workplace will be considered a change in working conditions, and the question is whether this new directive significantly changes how employees are expected to do their jobs. Mr. Superintendent’s regulations about how to stack books, and perfectly arrange classroom chairs at the end of the day does appear materially to change expectations for teachers. Moreover, the district’s then “flunking” teachers for not meeting these expectations further demonstrates that the Board has established new conditions of employment without the required prior negotiations.

It is important to note that principals need not tolerate sloppy teachers or sloppy classrooms, and they have every right to deal with individual teachers whose dress is unacceptable or whose classrooms are messy or disorganized. If the principal’s holding such teacher accountable were challenged (which is unlikely), the district would stand on sold ground by explaining that the principal has not changed anything, but rather is simply enforcing an established expectation that teachers dress appropriately and maintain an orderly classroom.

Given that the Tidy Teacher Initiative is, by contrast, a broad directive that affects working conditions, the Nutmeg Board of Education should restore the status quo ante by rescinding the directives implementing the Tidy Teacher Initiative and negotiating with NUTS over the provisions that would change working conditions. Otherwise, in due course the State Board of Labor Relations will consider this matter, and it would certainly order that the Nutmeg Board rescind the Initiative pending negotiations, and it may order other remedial action as well.

Finally, we note that Bob sprung his plan on the Board during Committee Reports without having the matter on the agenda. Under the FOIA, the Board members should not act upon or even discuss a matter that is not on the agenda for that meeting. Bob should have been more patient and presented his plan when it was properly on the agenda.