Wednesday afternoon, May 10, three steering committee members of Edinburg AFT arrived at Edinburg CISD’s Central Administration for their 4:00 grievance hearing with Supt. Dr. Rene Gutierrez. Those committee members, Amado Balderas, Marsha Gonzalez, and Leticia Palacios Quintanilla, were asked to sign in and were then told they could proceed to the Executive Conference Room where the meeting would be held. When Zoltan Csaplar, a national representative for the American Federation of Teachers, arrived at Central Administration, he was told by an ECISD police officer that he would not be able to attend the hearing, despite the fact that Austin-based attorney Kevin O’Hanlon had already entered the hearing room on behalf of the superintendent.

“We didn’t want to create obstacles,” Csaplar told me after the hearing, “but it didn’t occur to me that he (the superintendent) would object to my presence.” The grievance notice from the superintendent did not specify who could and who could not attend the meeting.

“This is exactly why we’re here,” Balderas added.

After phone calls and discussions, Csaplar was allowed to join the Edinburg AFT members in the hearing. Attorney Martha Owen, who represents Texas AFT, “attended” the meeting, as well, via phone conferencing.

As you may recall, Edinburg AFT filed this grievance last month after the contentious district-level site-based-decision-making (D-L SBDM) meeting March 20 where D-L SBDM members were expecting to take a written, but anonymous, vote on whether the district should proceed with becoming a District of Innovation. While Gutierrez and other district and campus administrators insisted that ECISD planned to seek a DOI designation only for the calendar exemption (which would allow them to start school a week before the state-mandated date of the last Monday in August), many teachers and others in the community feared they would then use this designation to strip teachers of due process and take other DOI-related exemptions.

According to the D-L SBDM bylaws published on the ECISD website, “Site-based decision making is a process for decentralizing decisions to improve the educational outcomes at every school campus through a collaborative effort.” These bylaws also clearly reflect that it is the duty of the committee’s chairperson, elected by D-L SBDM members, to “conduct all regular meetings of the D-L SBDM.”

However, at the March 20 meeting, as D-L SBDM officers prepared to have members vote on the anonymous ballots, ECISD assistant superintendents Ron Cavazos and Dr. Rebecca Morrison commandeered the meeting, insisting that each committee member vote on a ballot with his/her name and campus name on it, a directive from Gutierrez.

I attended that meeting. Because it quickly became contentious, I began recording the meeting via Facebook Live. At one point, Morrison left the room and returned, announcing amid protests that she had just spoken to Gutierrez, and he reiterated his directive that they vote by the district-provided “non-anonymous” ballot. In the end, the results of that vote showed 30 committee members voting for the DOI designation and 22 members voting against. After this vote was taken, D-L SBDM officers asked the members to vote by the anonymous ballot they had expected, and the results flip-flopped, with 30 members voting against the designation and 19 voting for.

District officials used their non-anonymous ballot results for the state-mandated D-L SBDM approval of DOI. The final step was for the school board to approve the designation; however, due to the outcry over the handling of the March 20 meeting, which School Board Trustee Mike Farias attended, the board voted unanimously to terminate the pursuit of the DOI designation. (Trustee Robert Pena was absent)

Edinburg AFT members met with Dr. Gutierrez last month, originally telling him they preferred to avoid the grievance process if he would agree to the remedies they were seeking to ensure something like this does not happen again. Those remedies are:

1. A determination that the administrators’ actions violated the cited laws and policies.

2. A communication from the board that the district will not tolerate retaliation of any kind against AFT members for questioning or opposing the DOI or questioning or opposing the actions taken by administration at the March 20 District-Level SBDM committee meeting.

3. Training for administrators and all district personnel in the proper role of the SBDM and the anti-bullying features of DH (Local) and the right of the employees to free speech under DGA (Legal).

4. All administrators with items to be discussed at District-Level SBDM meetings must have those items approved and initialed by the Superintendent and a digital copy sent to the DLSBDM Executive Committee members so they may be included on the agenda.

5. All ballots and lists of ballot results which were collected in the non-confidential Edinburg CISD District of Innovation vote be placed in a secure location. This is to deter any form of retaliation against principals/teachers that voted against the implementation of the District of Innovation plan for Edinburg CISD.

Edinburg AFT members told Gutierrez they love ECISD and did not want the district to look bad. That is why they were offering to solve their concerns outside of the grievance process. According to Balderas, however, the next day the group received an email from Gutierrez indicating that a Level I/II grievance hearing would be held, with him, the following Tuesday. Because they felt they would not have time to prepare, and the meeting was scheduled for 2:00 p.m. when the members would be teaching, they attempted to contact the superintendent to reschedule, but he did not respond. Attorney Martha Owen was finally able to reach him Monday afternoon, and the grievance hearing was rescheduled for yesterday, May 10, at 4:00 p.m.

Edinburg AFT members insist the hearing should not have been held with Gutierrez because the normal grievance process is not followed when the complaint is against the superintendent. In those cases, Levels I and II are bypassed, and the case goes directly to Level III, which means it is heard by the school board. In fact, on the ECISD website under Policy Code: DGBA, Title: PERSONNEL-MANAGEMENT RELATIONS, Subtitle: EMPLOYEE COMPLAINTS/GRIEVANCES, DGBA (LOCAL) reads, under “COMPLAINTS AGAINST SUPERVISORS: Complaints alleging a violation of law, policy, or regulation by a supervisor shall be submitted to the Superintendent. The Superintendent shall appoint a hearing officer to hear the complaint at Level One. Complaint forms alleging a violation of law, policy, or regulation by the Superintendent may be submitted directly to the Board or designee.” (Bolding is mine)

Nevertheless, Gutierrez continued to refer to the meeting as a Level I/II grievance. Balderas, Gonzalez, and Quintanilla were told they had 15 minutes to present their case. Gonzalez said as the hearing began, district officials referred to it as a “Level II grievance.” She immediately objected to the grievance being called a Level II grievance because it violated the district policy related to grievances against the superintendent. Although it was obvious it would continue as a Level II hearing, Gonzalez wanted it on the record. When their 15 minutes ended, Gutierrez and O’Hanlon asked questions. Balderas, Gonzalez, and Quintanilla presented evidence, including the live video from the March 20 meeting and statements from teachers about intimidation on their campuses leading up to the vote and other coercive actions that occurred.

According to district policy, the superintendent must provide Edinburg AFT with a written response within 10 days of yesterday’s hearing. The policy further reads, “If the employee did not receive the relief requested at Level Two or if the time for a response has expired, the employee may appeal the decision to the Board.”

“Our goal is to have a better functioning district,” Csaplar said, “where people can work without fear of intimidation and where employees have a voice.”

I will continue to follow this story and report on it. Ten days. 

Column Update

According to Amado Balderas, Edinburg AFT members spoke to Dr. Gutierrez April 6. They filed the grievance April 7. Friday, April 21, at approximately 3:30 p.m., they received notification from Gutierrez’s office that their grievance hearing would be held April 25 at 2:00 p.m. Edinburg AFT members had understood the superintendent would work with them for a mutually agreed-upon date and time, but this did not occur. As mentioned in the original column, the Edinburg AFT members are teaching at 2:00 in the afternoon, so they attempted to contact Gutierrez to reschedule; however, their messages went unanswered. Monday, April 24, at approximately 6:00 p.m., Martha Owen was finally able to speak to Kevin O’Hanlon (not to Dr. Gutierrez, as originally reported). Approximately 30 minutes later, Balderas said, Edinburg AFT members received word from Gutierrez that the hearing was to be rescheduled, but he did not provide them with the new date and time. May 5, they received a notice from Gutierrez that the hearing would be held May 10 at 4:00 p.m.

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.