The union that represents Columbia Public Schools’ teachers could be a step closer to reaching a collective bargaining agreement with the district after a public comment meeting Wednesday.

But even if that agreement is ratified by both sides, which could happen as early as Sept. 19, it won’t eliminate uncertainty for the Columbia Missouri National Education Association.

The district and the union reached an impasse this spring. It was not over salary increases and working conditions; The remaining issue was over whether or not CMNEA needed to recertify under a 2018 state law, signed by then-Gov. Eric Greitens on the same day he resigned after a scandal over alleged blackmail to hide an affair. The outcome of a legal challenge to that law, now before a judge in St. Louis County, will ultimately determine how easy it is for the CMNEA and other public employee unions to maintain their collective bargaining rights.

The Columbia Public School district was set to pull CMNEA’s recognition June 30. It took a lawsuit from CMNEA and an order from a Boone County judge on June 28 for the district to restart talks with the union.

Michelle Baumstark, district spokesperson, said all the negotiated raises and working condition improvements for Columbia public school teachers already are in place: The Columbia School Board approved them in May. Baumstark said much of the deal is legally enforceable through individual teacher contracts.

While Kathy Steinhoff, CMNEA president, said she appreciates and trusts the district’s intent to honor the deal, she wants pay and policies to be part of a ratified agreement that recognizes her union as the collective bargaining agent for Columbia’s teachers.

That’s what’s in the tentative agreement that the school board will be taking up at Wednesday’s public comment session.

It would mean that the union would have legal recourse if the district doesn’t follow through, though Steinhoff doesn’t expect that to be a problem. “I hope to never be in a legal battle with my district again,” she said.

Steinhoff expressed some frustration that it took so long to reach this point in the process. She said it caused stress for all involved and additional expense, in the form of legal fees, for taxpayers.

She said the root of the problem is the 2018 state law that Greitens signed and that is now under legal challenge by a host of public employee unions, including the Missouri National Education Association, the parent of Steinhoff’s local bargaining unit.

That law would require certain public employee unions — including many that represent teachers — to be recertified every three years by the Missouri State Board of Mediation. It also makes it tougher for public employees to win certification: Instead of needing a majority of votes cast, the unions would have to win the support of a majority of members of the bargaining unit — including employees who don’t cast votes.

Steinhoff noted that the higher standard for certification is one the elected officials who enacted the law didn’t have to meet.

If elected officials had to receive the support of over half of eligible voters, rather than the majority of votes actually cast, “I don’t know if we would have anyone in office,” Steinhoff said. In recent decades, even winning presidential candidates have rarely garnered support from even a third of eligible voters because so few of them show up at the polls.

A judge in St. Louis County issued an injunction on March 8 halting enforcement of the recertification law while the courts decide whether it’s constitutional. By halting the recertifications, the injunction made it impossible for CPS teachers to comply with the district’s demand. But the school district contended that the union should have gotten recertified earlier and insisted it could not legally work with an uncertified union.

The dispute highlights a long simmering difference over how Columbia teachers’ pay and working conditions should be negotiated.

In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned precedent to give public employees, including teachers, the right to bargain collectively and reach binding agreements. The case, Independence NEA vs. Independence School District, arose when a district refused to honor the results of a more informal discussion process known as “meet and confer.”

The Missouri State Teachers Association, a professional group, filed a brief in that case calling collective bargaining bad for teachers, students, taxpayers and voters, and education. In Columbia, some local MSTA members also opposed the move to collective bargaining. But they were on the losing end of the fight in 2012 when CMNEA was certified as the teachers’ representative.

A majority of all the district’s teachers voted in favor of the union, says Steinhoff. She said membership in CMNEA is nearing 650. MSTA has nearly 550 members in Columbia Public Schools, according to Susie Adams, a U.S. history teacher at Battle High School and former president of the statewide association. Steinhoff estimates that fewer than five teachers pay dues to both groups.

The Columbia Public School district was unable to say exactly how many teachers are on the payroll, but it reports having about 1,500 full-time equivalency teaching positions.

Adams favors the law that would make it more difficult for CMNEA to recertify.

She would like to return to the traditional “meet and confer” model, rather than having an exclusive representative like CMNEA, because she says it gives everyone a seat at the table.

“Just the word ‘exclusive’ lets you know that someone will be left out,” Adams said.

CMNEA purports to include all employees’ voices, Adams said, but she thinks it’s unfair that CMNEA members are allowed to view and approve new contracts first. Adams also said that surveys sent out by CMNEA sometimes show bias by asking leading questions.

Steinhoff defended the collective bargaining method. She said it’s important for teachers to have agreements that are legally enforceable, and hopes the state law that makes union certification more difficult will be found unconstitutional.

The next hearing in the St. Louis County case that will determine the constitutionality of that law is scheduled for Oct. 24. In the injunction that blocked it from being enforced, at least temporarily, Circuit Judge Joseph Walsh III found fault with several aspects of the law, including:

  • The new certification requirements.
  • Distinctions between different types of public employee unions.
  • Limits on what issues can be negotiated.
  • Free speech restrictions, including a ban on public employees picketing peacefully.
  • Allowances for public bodies to change ratified agreements without unions’ permission.

While she waits for the court battle to play out, Steinhoff said she just wants the local struggle over certification resolved so she can get back to her true job, teaching algebra and geometry at Hickman High School.

“We’re really excited to move forward and get back to the important work at hand, which is working with our students,” she said.

  • Education reporter, fall 2019 Studying investigative journalism Reach me at mariabenevento@mail.missouri.edu or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

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