A day before students returned in the Mobile County Public School System Aug. 8, Superintendent Martha Peek found herself under oath, defending recent changes to the access third-party groups will have to local schools this year.

Three representatives of the Alabama Education Association (AEA) brought the legal challenge against Peek and other administrators after it was revealed that “vendors” — including AEA — wouldn’t be allowed to attend MCPSS’s new-teacher orientation last week.

Alabama Education Association.

Because it exists in a “right-to-work state,” AEA isn’t a union in the typical sense, even though many of its functions are the same. It offers liability insurance to its members and represents the interests of public education employees in disputes with their employers.

In the past, when new teachers arrived for the week-long orientation, AEA representatives would be among several vendors present on the MCPSS administrative campus in West Mobile. There, the organization had also been allowed to give short presentations to teachers.

In 12 years with AEA, representative Eric Beck said he’s always attended MCPSS orientation events, adding the organization tries to reach “as many MCPSS employees as possible, to lessen those activities during the school year.”

However, three days before this year’s orientation, AEA was informed its representatives would not be allowed on any school campus without a “letter of introduction” approved by by the superintendent. When a group of 13 AEA employees tried to obtain those letters, their application was denied based on a board policy that hasn’t been used in more than a decade.

In his testimony Monday, AEA representative Jesse McDaniel said the change would likely hurt AEA’s recruitment and its ability to represent roughly 4,500 members within the MCPSS system.

“It’s been very harmful to recruitment already, and going forward — if this is allowed to stand — it will create a level of intimidation where employees are unable to have representation at the school level,” McDaniel said. “If a principal is to discipline an employee, not only will they have the burden of asking for representation, but they can be told, ‘Well, we’ve got to take this downtown, if you’ve got to have representation.’ That’s the reality this will create.”

The issue arose this year because of Board Policy 9.11, which governs the access third-party groups have to MCPSS sites. As written in 2007, it would require third parties to obtain a “letter of introduction” to access any school property. Despite that, the standing practice for AEA for years has been to simply coordinate any visit with the supervisor of that location.

The AEA has suggested Peek might have violated protocol by changing MCPSS policy without seeking input from the Board of School Commissioners. Peek, however, maintains the only change has been to start implementing a policy the school board has already approved.

To put a greater emphasis on school security and address what she says is a growing number of “vendors” who want access to local schools, Peek, and other administrators made the decision to start enforcing the 10-year-old board policy this year.

Mobile County Public Schools Superintendent Martha Peek.

If left unchanged, it likely means AEA employees will be prohibited from visiting any MCPSS facility during regular school hours, as Peek has clearly stated she has no intention of granting anyone’s request for the “letter of introduction” the policy requires.

“Times change and concern about people having entrance into the school has certainly increased,” Peek said. “For better or worse, there has also been an increase in the number of people who are looking to have a captive audience. They know we’re the largest business in Mobile, that we have employees who are there for a specific period of time and they want access. We’re very attractive to a whole host of outside vendors.”

In court, Peek said some of those vendors include not just other advocacy groups such as the Alabama Federation of Teachers but also professional and personal services, including “masseuses who want to come in to offer stress relief” to staff members during the school year.

Peek said she wants teachers to focus on teaching and doesn’t want schools to become “a marketplace,” even if the service being sold is union representation. However, Peek did acknowledge the value of AEA, of which she has previously been a dues-paying member.

According to Peek, MCPSS has a history of working with AEA. She also pointed out that, despite the recent friction, officials agreed to make membership information available at last week’s orientation on AEA’s behalf. When it comes to recruiting, though, Peek said AEA exists as part of a “marketplace” she’d rather not distract from school activities.

Yet Judge Roderick P. Stout, who heard oral arguments in the case this week, said he was somewhat bothered by classifying the AEA as a vendor given the frequent role it plays in disputes between MCPSS and its employees.

“This is an advocacy group, which represents some 50-plus percent of your employees and goes head-to-head with management and with you from time to time — it causes me some problem to lump them in with book salesmen or uniform salesmen,” Stout said, speaking to Peek directly. “They would probably say this is an effort to put them in a broader group, the effect of which could quell, interfere or diminish their capacity to represent employees during controversies against you.”

Stout said Peek had raised legitimate concerns about the AEA staff’s distinct roles as advocates for local teachers and as recruiters seeking new members. However, Stout pointed out that in Peek’s previous testimony, she couldn’t recall an incident where AEA’s presence created a disruption to school operations.

Attorneys for MCPSS and the AEA are currently working privately to find a compromise on the issue. However, if an agreement isn’t reached, a follow-up hearing is scheduled for Aug. 14, where Stout will hear closing arguments from both sides and make a determination himself.