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AUSTIN EDITION - School unions, officials at odds

Unions give superintendent vote of no confidence

By Nikki Merfeld

*merfeld@postbulletin.com

For the first time in Austin's history, teachers and members of three other unions have given their superintendent a vote of no confidence.

Austin School Board President David Simonson said the school board stands behind Corrine Johnson, who's in her second year of leading the district. "I do believe the board is unanimous in supporting the superintendent," said Simonson.

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The no-confidence vote -- and the board's support -- also apply to Julie Jensen, director of employee relations.

Austin Education Association President Bob Riege said the vote was taken because Johnson and Jensen failed to respond to staff concerns raised at a June meeting. Those concerns centered around communication, leadership and interpretation of the teachers' contract, which took until May to negotiate.

Johnson said making tough decisions upsets people.

"Apparently that's what I've done," she said.

Such tough decisions have included offering teachers less than they'd hoped for in their two-year contract and considering measures that would cut expenses in response to declining enrollment.

For example, parents and teachers alike reacted strongly to Johnson's proposal to combine the principalships of Neveln and Sumner elementary schools. That idea did not transpire.

No immediate action was taken in response to the unions' no-confidence vote, which occurred in late November. Riege issued a press release on the vote Thursday.

"This just happened, so we need a chance to stop reeling," Johnson said Thursday. "I don't have any 10-point plan."

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Johnson said she believes many good things have occurred under her direction, including a successful levy referendum, negotiation of a fair contract with teachers, and curriculum development.

"We continue to maintain a healthy fund balance," she added, referring to a public outcry before her term over district actions resulting in overspending.

Jensen said she feels nothing positive can come of the unions' vote.

"Obviously, it's disappointing and I think it's a shame the teachers association has taken this vote. I've worked very hard and feel really good about the job I've done. I've done what the school board asked me to do," said Jensen. "I have faithfully followed employment contracts. I've hired quality employees. I've successfully negotiated 11 working agreements."

Jensen resigned in October and her last day with the school district will be a week from today. Including her in the vote, knowing she's leaving, "shows they are mean-spirited," she said.

"We included her so even a new person coming in would understand there are some hot-button issues," Riege said.

Unions representing secretaries, food workers and custodians also voted to show their dissatisfaction with the performance of Johnson and Jensen, Riege said. There are seven bargaining groups within the district.

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