On Friday, in an at-times tense courtroom, St. Croix Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady terminated a temporary restraining order (TRO) entered on Sept. 26 and expected to expire on Friday to stop the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) from protesting.
The termination came with grounds that the American Federation of Teachers Local 1826 takes accountability for their members. Brady also addressed that he expects the V.I. Education Department and the American Federation of Teachers to speak directly with each other to come to a resolution.
On behalf of the V.I. Education Department (plaintiff), Insular Superintendent Ericida Ottley-Herman said that from Aug. 7 to Aug. 22, she met with American Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas via Zoom.
“We have monthly meetings to discuss issues that we have in the schools,” said Ottley-Herman. During those meetings, Soto spoke about issues at the school, including the heat, school supplies and other matters.
In a meeting on Sept. 7, Ottley-Herman said that she communicated to Soto that they were awaiting breakers to come in for the Juanita Gardine K-8 school for their air conditioning system to be up and running. “The breakers did arrive, and the air conditioning units have been consistent all week,” said Ottley-Herman.
She also referenced the Eulalie R. Rivera K-8 school had a delay with poles for fans and that ceiling fans had been specially ordered and installations were beginning along with electrical upgrades to the school.
Ottley-Herman said that both she and Commissioner (Dionne) Wells-Hedrington met with Soto on Sept. 18 and the following day, Sep. 19, the community update was given that Eulalie R. Rivera K-8 and the Juanita Gardine K-8 schools would see altered schedules because of the heat. The schedule was shifted from 7:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. and Soto then requested the dismissal time to 12:30 p.m., to which Ottley-Herman said she complied.
On Sep. 20, Ottley-Herman said that bus drivers, paraprofessionals, teachers, and other members of the American Federation of Teachers did not show up to work at their expected time or called out sick. The department then started to assess the working staff and that some buses had already picked up students and parents had begun to drop off students at school.
“It caused a severe disruption,” said Ottley-Herman. “When the American Federation of Teachers does a class action it cripples the operation.” She said that on that day, they met with Soto and asked if the staff would return and was told, “no guarantees.” Ottley-Herman also stated that an email was sent on the morning of Sep. 20 at 7:26 a.m. to Soto, as per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Section C, to intervene per that clause.
Ottley Herman said on Sept. 21, a certain number of teachers at the John H. Woodson Jr. High School decided they would be late to arrive. Then, on Sep. 22, “many of the students were encouraged by teachers to walk out,” she said. Also, on Friday, students at St. Croix Central High School walked down to the St. Croix Education Complex to participate in a protest, she said.
Ottley Herman also mentioned that although most teachers have returned to school since Sep. 25, the actions of the American Federation of Teachers members have affected other unions. She referenced that as of Friday, three to four bus drivers and a handful of paraprofessionals had called out sick.
During defendant Soto’s testimony, she explained that she frequently visits schools in the St. Croix district. She said that teachers have been reporting headaches, low energy levels and more issues pertaining to the heat. “I’ve never as a president received more calls,” said Soto.
Soto has been the American Federation of Teachers president for the past 12 years. “I would expect that they’d have a heart for my American Federation of Teachers members. The Department of Education is not bringing a date for relief,” she said.
Things got even more heated when attorney Zuleyma M. Chapman gave her cross-examination. “You received the letter from Ms. Ottley-Herman and your members conducted a job action,” she said.
To which Soto responded, “They protested.”
Paraprofessional Chair of the American Federation of Teachers and teacher Radiant Morris, along with another teacher from the Juanita Guardine K-8 and an American Federation of Teachers member, also testified for the defense. Morris said, “There are classrooms with no air conditioning right now.”
Morris also said that earlier in September, using a cell phone application, she measured the temperature in one of the classrooms and the temperature was up to 94 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the end, Brady called the teachers’ protest a strike and said, “I find from what I heard today, what happened was a strike. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, a strike is prohibited.” He said that there was no evidence to prove that the American Federation of Teachers informed their members to stop.
“That full day was lost, the following day was lost, Friday the 22nd was lost and then Monday people started to return to work,” he said. Brady also noted that given the teachers returned, the circumstances had changed and that the temporary restraining order would be dropped.