The Broward Teachers Union (BTU) and the School Board of Broward County, Florida have reached an out-of-court agreement in the union’s mass emailing lawsuit, setting a national precedent in how to use new technologies and resolve related complex computer communications concerns.
The agreement, which was negotiated between BTU’s new administrator John Tarka and Broward County Public Schools new Superintendent Robert Runcie, is an indication that District labor relations are improving for the nation’s sixth largest school district.
Tarka and Runcie reached the agreement in the best interest of the District and the BTU membership – employees of the Broward school system – that allows both sides to focus on teaching and learning and increasing student achievement. The agreement saves both groups thousands in court costs.
The agreement resolves the lawsuit and recognizes the integrity of the District’s computer servers and email systems as fundamental to the District’s ability to function, through communication among and between its various departments, and the administration, faculty, staff, students, parents and the public.
Since the lawsuit began, the union changed its mass emailing system provider, self-limited its use of the new technology and changed its focus to urging members to write and only send their own original messages. Email message topics vary widely from encouraging state representatives to improve teacher evaluation systems, increasing Florida’s public school funding so it is on par with other states and to urging School Board members to restore special curriculum such as art, music, physical education, library multimedia and guidance counseling programs.
“This agreement is a positive step forward for the union, District and most importantly our members and students because it is one less distraction from what needs to be our number one priority – providing the best possible education for our children,” Tarka said.
“This emailing lawsuit is a symptom of a larger problem – the need to rebuild trust and a more collaborative relationship between the School Board and teachers union. This agreement is a clear signal that everyone is moving in the right direction,” Runcie said.
The BTU filed the lawsuit against the District in February 2010 after District officials blocked emails from union members sent en masse to School Board members, stating the large volume of emails threatened the integrity of district’s Communicating Across Broward (CAB) email system. At the urging of Tarka and Runcie, District and union representatives were able to reach an agreement on this important issue with national implications that stipulates to certain terms, including the following:
The union agrees to tell its members not to intentionally “flood” or impair the District’s CAB and computer server systems.
BTU has also agreed to instruct its members to only send union related emails to School Board members and district officials using mass emailing systems during non-school hours between the hours before 8 a.m. and after 5 p.m. as well as on weekends and holidays.
District officials agree that the district will not block the mass emails from union members in the future provided such e-mails are sent following the agreement’s new rules.
At the same time, District officials have reserved the right to “throttle” or slow the transmission of the union members’ emails if at any time the District CAB and computer systems is deemed threatened by the union members’ mass emails.
District officials agree to notify the union and make sure any slowed electronic messages will reach their intended recipients within a reasonable time.
“Through no fault of their own, our courts and related laws have been unable to keep pace with quickly developing advances in computer communications so this agreement demonstrates the union and district’s ability to reach mutual understanding and accord around fundamental Constitutional rights and complex technological issues,” Tarka said.
Many organizations and even courts have incorrectly referred to this process of mass emailing as spamming or junk mail. By definition, however, spam and junk email are unsolicited messages sent by an entity unknown to the recipient and most times is unwanted.
The BTU uses a mass emailing system called SALSA that allows its members to easily send either a union prepared or self-edited email message to their elected officials. Using the system, which is hosted on a web page on an independently operated Internet site, union members can simultaneously email the same message to multiple district, local, state or federal officials.
The system, which was designed to make it easier for constituents to communicate with their elected representatives, allows members to email one elected official or, for example, the entire Florida House of Representatives with one click of a button. Some branches of government have placed restrictions on their computer email systems such as limiting email access to individuals from the respected elected official’s constituents who live in their district.
“This is clear evidence that policies and programs that truly impact teaching effectiveness result when teacher unions and management collaborate as equal partners,” said Runcie. “This outcome resulted from working together and really highlights that we don’t have the energy or fiscal resources to be divisive, we must work together.”