LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- A local labor attorney known for helping employers take on unions will be assisting Jefferson County Public Schools as it begins negotiations with at least two of its unions over wages.
James U. Smith has been brought on to assist with negotiations with the Teamsters Local 783 and the Jefferson County Association of Educational Support Personnel. Together, the two unions represent more than 5,000 district employees.
JCPS typically negotiates changes in wages with its unions every two years, usually in the summer months. But in years past, the talks have been fairly routine and have not involved outside attorneys.
Meanwhile, the Jefferson County Board of Education has called a special meeting for Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the Van Hoose Education Center to "discuss contract negotiation strategies." Portions of the meeting will take place in closed session, according to the notice signed by Diane Porter, vice-chairwoman of the school board.
Smith was asked to help with negotiations by Middleton-Reutlinger, one of two law firms the district has contracted with handle its legal services, according to Allison Martin, a JCPS spokeswoman.
Martin said Smith will assist O'Dell Henderson, the district's director of labor management and employee relations, with wage negotiations.
"Odell is working with the law firm," Martin said. "The law firm brought in Jim Smith. To my knowledge, it is the first time he’s assisted with negotiations."
However, Smith has not been involved in wage negotiations with the Jefferson County Teachers Association -- at least not yet, according to Brent McKim, president of the teachers union.
The district's move to bring in Smith has prompted the two other unions to hire their own attorneys, union officials said.
"This has not happened before," said Bo Johnson with the Jefferson County Association of Educational Support Personnel, the union that represents approximately 3,400 of the district's instructional aides, school clerks and paraprofessionals. "And this is not a full-blown contract, this is just a wage opener. This is something that normally would take a week to figure out."
Johnson said he was supposed to meet with Henderson last week to begin negotiations and was told that Smith would be doing the negotiating.
"I told them we would have to reschedule so that our legal counsel could be present," he said. "Since they have an attorney involved, we got an attorney involved. This is not going to end well for the district."
Johnson also noted that the move comes less than a month after the school board told Superintendent Donna Hargens in her annual evaluation that she needed to improve her relationship with employees and increase morale.
John Stovall, president of the Teamsters, said he received similar notification that Smith would be involved when he and the district begin their negotiations on July 18.
"In my 14 years of negotiating with the district, they have never brought in an attorney to negotiate for them," Stovall said. "I find a sad state that they would bring in a lawyer known at union-busting tactics to work on negotiating a fair contract for their employees."
Stovall called the move "under-handed," saying the move comes a week before the two sides are supposed to sit down and talk.
"So much for the board recommendation that they would be more forth-coming and open with communication," he said. "I believe the current administration is trying to bust the unions."
In an interview with WDRB on Monday, Smith said he is not a "union busting" attorney. He said his firm "represents management exclusively." He said he has not worked with JCPS on negotiations before. He referred any questions back to the district.
Meanwhile, JCTA is proceeding with its plans to sue JCPS over salary negotiations, McKim said.
JCTA maintains that the district is not providing step increases for educators that were promised in the agreement between the two sides.
McKim said he expects the lawsuit to be filed this week.
JCTA is calling on all its members to attend the Jefferson County Board of Education meeting on July 26 to rally against JCPS.
McKim is also asking members to call and email school board members and Hargens to protest the action.
Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.
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