Court grants Modesto Teachers Association short-term victory

05/15/2014 11:06 AM

05/15/2014 8:04 PM

The Modesto Teachers Association won the first round in court against its state affiliate Thursday morning, getting a two-week reprieve from California Teachers Association trustees appointed to run its affairs.

With MTA accounts frozen and administrative authority in dispute, the two unions filed competing requests for temporary restraining orders. Superior Court Judge Timothy Salter combined the actions for argument Thursday.

Salter ruled for the local chapter, saying MTA had the most at stake and therefore the greatest risk before the full case could be heard. In legal parlance, the decision centered on the potential for irreparable harm, not the merits of the cases.

However, Salter limited access to MTA’s roughly $4 million in assets, allowing only normal business expenditures, not to exceed $100,000 without court approval.

The parties will return to court May 30, with an 8:30 a.m. hearing to argue the merits of their claims about MTA administration.

Speaking for MTA, attorney Rafael Ruano said the local chapter is fighting for its legal life. “MTA is a separate, independent corporate entity,” Ruano said. If the state union can make rules that supersede local procedures, then the distinction between the two organizations disappears, he said.

The statewide organization always had the right to set rules, said CTA attorney Glenn Rothner, reading from a section of bylaws approved as part of MTA’s charter when it joined the California association in 1950.

Rothner said the Modesto chapter’s decision to hold a disaffiliation vote under the local’s own, lower bar led to the trusteeship being imposed May 5.

But the judge questioned CTA’s move to seize the chapter’s assets. “Why do you need a trusteeship? Isn’t that a little drastic?” Salter asked.

It appeared necessary, Rothner replied, based on the MTA leadership’s determination “to plow ahead regardless” with an unsanctioned election. He said CTA trustees were installed to represent the rights of chapter members and restore what he called the democratic process, following state bylaws and standing rules.

After the ruling, CTA trustee Bill McMurray said an informational meeting would go on as planned Thursday evening to explain the state group’s actions and position. “Obviously at the moment, there’s not much more we can be doing,” he said. “We understand the trusteeship is in abeyance.”

MTA President Doug Burton declined to comment after the decision.

Thursday’s decision allows MTA to finish contract negotiations for 2014-15 with Modesto City Schools, which sent a top administrator and its own attorney to watch Thursday’s proceedings. Associate Superintendent Craig Rydquist left without comment after the ruling.

The district faces legal proceedings of its own after allowing only MTA pre-election materials to be distributed through school mail and district email. Modesto teachers opposed to the split created a Facebook page and used home email addresses to share information. The state union appealed to the Public Employees Relations Board, which issued a complaint April 30 against the district.

MTA went ahead with the vote May 6, in which members soundly defeated the leadership’s proposal to split, 58 percent to 40 percent.

The MTA proposal to break away from CTA followed a dispute over a $280,000 staffing grant. The Modesto local employs three staff members with the funding, but pays the bulk of its executive director’s salary to Modesto City Schools, which cuts the paychecks. The arrangement allows the director to accrue retirement credit and maintain seniority as if still teaching, but technically makes the director a district employee, violating the grant agreement.

MTA leadership voted to lose the subsidy rather than end the practice, moving next to disaffiliate and keep Modesto dues now sent to the state office. Going it alone would have roughly doubled MTA’s annual income, a portion of which could have gone to lowering member dues, a pre-election MTA flier said.

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