State union fails to seize control of Modesto Teachers Association office

naustin@modbee.comMay 5, 2014 

Day Of Action 02

Megan Gowans, Modesto Teachers Association executive director since 2008, takes part in a March 2010 protest against state budget cuts to education.

BRIAN RAMSAY — Modesto Bee file Buy Photo

The California Teachers Association moved to seize control of the Modesto Teachers Association office Monday, on the eve of a vote to leave the state organization. But MTA says police rebuffed the takeover and the vote will proceed Tuesday as scheduled.

“All they have is a scrap of paper saying they’ve imposed trusteeship,” said Rafael Ruano of the law firm Goyette and Associates Inc. of Gold River, who said he was speaking for MTA leadership. “They took an internal CTA vote and said, ‘We’re taking over MTA,’ and there’s no legal basis for them to do it.”

In a phone call Monday night, Ruano said the state group’s efforts to seize control of MTA bank accounts and property were unsuccessful, and that a court order would have been required to take such actions.

The office drama began Monday afternoon, when CTA trustees Bill McMurray and Rhonnie Tinsley arrived to assume control of the local chapter’s headquarters in the 800 block of Coffee Road.

“We can’t allow this election to go on, because we believe it’s unlawful. The results would be null and void,” said Jonathan Goldman, CTA communications manager, on Monday evening from the group’s Burlingame headquarters. Goldman said by state rules, disaffiliating takes a two-thirds vote of the membership, which was not the plan in Modesto.

“The threshold to amend our bylaws, as stated in our bylaws, is a majority of those who vote, not a percentage of membership,” MTA President Doug Burton wrote in an earlier email responding to Bee questions. “The vote is scheduled for May 6, 2014, from 2-8 p.m. in the Davis High little theater,” he wrote.

Ruano said that vote will take place, though it was unclear Monday if a simple majority vote would stand.

Goldman said the state organization’s rules trump the local’s, and that every member chapter’s bylaws must conform to the parent organization.

Ruano countered, saying, “MTA has never agreed to rules that make it virtually impossible to leave.”

MTA leaders were behind the initial push to split from the state union, framing the vote as a matter of local control and lower union dues. Opponents to the change said members were being asked to give up representation and resources to protect the personal finances of local leaders.

MTA Executive Director Megan Gowans did not respond to Bee requests for comment. Burton responded by email to Bee questions and provided financial documents and MTA fliers regarding the split on behalf of MTA.

The dust-up began in December when the state organization discovered Modesto’s unusual practice of paying a staff member via the school district payroll. Goldman said CTA knows of no other chapters among its 1,000 locals that use any similar practice.

For three decades, the local has received a grant through the state union to hire its own staff, about $280,000 a year. For 22 of those years, however, MTA has hired a former president for the post and paid the school district to keep those ex-teachers on its payroll.

The system allows local executives to accrue retirement credit under the California State Teachers Retirement System, better known as CalSTRS, as if they still were teaching. The practice, as an MTA flier explains, protects the employee’s rights to return to the classroom should the MTA board of directors decide to fire him or her.

Elected officers such as Burton are allowed by state law to continue to be paid as employees on leave. But neither CalSTRS nor Modesto City Schools could provide a similar exemption in CalSTRS regulations for an appointed staff member.

“Our legal counsel has advised that, to the best of our knowledge, the MTA executive director position falls within the coverage of ‘elected official’ terminology, and as the employer, we do not intend to challenge the MTA’s internal procedures, particularly if STRS has no problem with it,” said Modesto Superintendent Pam Able via email in response to Bee questions.

Putting aside whether an individual who serves at the will of the MTA board is a district employee, the duties of the job appear at odds with what CalSTRS calls creditable service. A CalSTRS Employer Information Circular says only what it calls academic positions – one involved in instruction or student service in some way, or their supervisors – qualify for retirement credit.

While the move to split started over one job, the vote will affect all of MTA’s 1,525 members.

An MTA flier says teachers will see more in their paychecks if the split goes through, estimating annual savings of $347 a year. If the split fails, the flier says, MTA will raise member dues to $1,286 to maintain its current staffing arrangements.

The tax filing shows MTA paid more than $400,000 in wages, benefits and stipends to office staff, elected officers and committee members. That includes $38,047 in compensation to Gowans, in addition to her release time paid through Modesto City Schools. The union paid $176,708 to the district for yearlong time off for President Doug Burton and Gowans. MTA also pays clerical staff and 15 union officers for part-time work on union business.

By contrast, the Turlock Teachers Association, roughly half the size of MTA, pays five officers monthly stipends of $250 and has no office staff, said President Julie Shipman. Shipman gets a $500-a-month stipend and five hours a week of paid time to do union business. Dues are $980 per year for Turlock Unified teachers.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at (209) 578-2339.

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