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The employee signature cards have been counted and verified. Now, the Prince William County School Board will vote sometime before mid-July on whether to move forward with collective bargaining for qualifying school division staff.

That’s where things stood as of Tuesday, May 10, in the ongoing and sometimes bumpy effort to secure collective bargaining rights for staff members of Prince William County’s largest employer: the local school division.

After butting heads over the last few weeks over a process for verifying the more than 5,000 employee signatures collected in support of collective bargaining, the Prince William Education Association and the Prince William County School Board came to an agreement last week on a way to proceed that the teachers’ union believes will prevent the school division from retaining signers’ identifying information.

On Tuesday, May 10, the PWEA, its attorney, school division human resources staff and school board attorneys met at the Edward L. Kelly Administration Building to check employee identification numbers from the cards and tally them in three broad categories of certified staff.

PWEA President Maggie Hansford said the procedure offered sufficient protection of the signers’ personal information, a priority of the teachers’ union. 

The process took about four hours and resulted in the verification that a majority of the school division’s certified staff members support moving forward with collective bargaining, according to a joint statement from the school board and the PWEA.

“We verified all the signatures, and we secured a majority, just like we said we did,” Hansford said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re excited to move the process forward for all PWCS employees."

Hansford declined to release the exact number of signatures that were verified. But she said the only information retained by the school division are the three tallies of employees that fall within three broad categories of certified staff. The union has insisted it could not turn over the actual signature cards to the school division because of a concern among signers that they might suffer retaliation from school division administrators for supporting collective bargaining.

School Board Chairman Dr. Babur Lateef acknowledged the verification process in a text message Tuesday and said a school board vote on whether to move forward would occur before mid-July.

Lateef declined to say, however, exactly when the vote will occur or whether he will support it. 

“I have many other priorities in the agenda, specifically dealing with the final budget from the General Assembly and anticipated cuts to the budget that may be needed,” Lateef said. “I have not focused on this issue, and so I have no further insight to add.”

The verification of the employee signature cards is just one step in the process. Under a law that went into effect in May 2021, local school boards and boards of supervisors can take action independently to adopt a collective bargaining process for public employees. If they choose not to initiate a vote, however, employees can force a vote by demonstrating that at least 50% of employees in a potential bargaining unit support collective bargaining. Such a vote must take place within 120 days of that show of support, according to the new state law. 

Hansford announced on March 18 that the PWEA had collected more than 5,000 employee signatures in support of collective bargaining. Her announcement triggered the 120-day timeline, which expires in mid-July.

If the process in the Prince William County school division comes to a successful conclusion, it will mark the first time ever that the school division’s more than 12,000 employees, including more than 6,500 teachers, will have the authority to bargain with school division administrators over matters that could include things such as pay, benefits and working conditions. All of that depends on the details of a collective bargaining agreement, however, which has yet to be hammered out.

The Prince William Board of County Supervisors voted in December to move forward with collective bargaining for its public safety employees and is working on an ordinance to move the process forward.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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