Government warns teachers against rumored sick-out


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ST. THOMAS - Government House on Monday issued a statement warning the teachers' union against any job actions that may be planned to protest the changes to the school calendar.

Chief Negotiator Valdemar Hill, Jr. wrote a letter to the American Federation of Teachers union leaders in each district saying that according to "credible information" the administration has learned that the union may be planning to disrupt classes or stage a sick-out this week.

All territorial public schools are closed this week for spring break, except Central High School which is making up missed classes.

Education Department spokeswoman Ananta Pancham said no job actions were reported at Central High School on Monday.

Hill's letter was sent Friday to AFT local chapter presidents Vernelle de Lagarde in the St. Thomas-St. John District and Rosa Soto-Thomas in the St. Croix District, according to a statement from Government House.

According to Hill's letter: "The government is in receipt of credible information indicating that several members of the teachers union are contemplating engaging in organized job action."

Gov. John deJongh Jr. said the local AFT chapters have been "put on notice" to intervene and instruct their members to cease and desist from any plans they may have to disrupt classes.

"It is beyond our understanding that the AFT union members would engage in a job action that will jeopardize the education of our young people over the issue of the school calendar," deJongh said Monday in a written statement.

Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory announced last week that to ensure instructional hours are met and that teachers are not short-changed of their vacation and professional development days during the implementation of a new school calendar, the department plans to add two weeks of vacation time into the school year.

The shortened summer break will be made up during the Christmas and Carnival breaks and will comply with the new mandate to start school two weeks earlier and meet the required 1,080 hours of instructional time that is required by the Virgin Islands Code, according to Frett-Gregory.

The law to change the school calendar first was passed by the 29th Legislature and mandates the fall semester start two weeks earlier - about Aug. 11 - so that it will end before the Christmas break.

Union leaders have spoken out against the commissioner's proposal.

De Legarde said Monday that she is not aware of any planned protests or job actions in her district. She said she sent a letter to Hill on Monday that pointed out the fact that school is not in session this week.

Soto-Thomas could not be reached for comment.

De Legarde said the union membership is not happy with the proposal to give the educators extra vacation time, and they want to be paid for the two weeks of summer vacation they will be losing by having to start the school year in early August.

"In order to be reimbursed for the shortened summer, it has to come in money," she said.

She said her approximately 850 members were polled last week, and the overwhelming majority of them want the union leaders to continue to push lawmakers to repeal the mandated calendar changes. If that does not work, they want to be paid for the two weeks of vacation they are losing from the current school year, rather than getting extra vacation next school year, she said.

"It's a clear violation of the collective bargaining agreement," de Legarde said. "You cannot just put days on the calendar that you did not negotiate. There's a cost to that."

DeJongh reminded the unions that when the bill to change the calendar first came to his desk, he vetoed it.

"It was overridden, and my attempts to have the 30th Legislature repeal the legislation were not successful," he said.

Government House officials said they heard teachers were planning sick-outs beginning Monday; not planning to report to work after Wednesday; not reporting at all this week; or coming in and not teaching and preparing packets of schoolwork to give students for them to complete next week at home and telling the students not to come to school because teachers will not be at the school.          

None of that happened Monday.

Hill said any job action or work stoppage would be a violation of the union's collective bargaining agreement as well as a violation of law.

"Any employee who engages in a work stoppage will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including discharge. Further, under Virgin Islands law, a union may be held legally responsible for any damages incurred by the government as a result of an unlawful job action, even if the job action was not authorized by the union," Hill said.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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