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St. Louis Teachers' Union President Survives Recall Vote

A student leaves Dunbar Elementary School in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood Jan. 9, 2019. The district has proposed closing the school after this year.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A student leaves Dunbar Elementary School in the JeffVanderLou neighborhood Jan. 9, 2019.

Updated 9:30 p.m., June 19, with results of recall vote — The president of the union representing St. Louis’ traditional public school teachers survived a recall vote Wednesday night. But the effort to oust her has created a clear fissure in the union.

Sally Topping is only two years into her first term as president of American Federation of Teachers Local 420. An executive board that predates her failed to oust her on charges she’s misled members and lacked financial transparency. Topping calls the claims weak and exaggerated.

More than 300 members came out in the midst of summer vacation for what turned into a heated, accusation-laden debate. A few teachers walked out before casting a ballot, saying they were fed up with the rancor.

“We know there’s going to be some dissent but let’s do it in a cordial, civil manner to where we can vehemently agree or disagree but at the end of the day there’s not this nastiness,” said Carr Lane Middle School English teacher Riebeil Durley-Petty, who stayed to cast a vote but would not say for which side.

Those who stayed voted 157-150 to keep Topping, short of the two-thirds majority needed to recall her. Several teachers said they didn’t know which side to believe.

There are about 2,300 St. Louis Public Schools teachers and educators represented by the union, though its power to sway district administrators is weakened in part by the lack of mandatory entry into the union.

Metro High School teacher Paul Perniciaro finally started paying dues after 10 years in the district when Topping was elected president and still supports her, saying the old guard did little to increase teacher salaries.

“She’s the only hope that we have,” he said.

Topping has one more year left in her term. The union and SLPS are expected to begin negotiating this fall for a new contract that will start July 1, 2020.

Original story from June 18:

The president of the teachers’ union could be removed from the post before the end of her term in 2020.

The executive board of American Federation of Teachers Local 420 scheduled a recall vote for Wednesday evening to decide whether to oust first-term President Sally Topping.

Members say Topping has grown authoritarian and is misleading the 2,300 educators in the union, charges which Topping said are weak.

Topping was elected in 2017 to replace Mary Armstrong, who retired.

“It started off promising, but things really turned sour,” said John Whisenhunt, a high school social studies teacher of more than a decade and now an official with the union. Whisenhunt initiated the recall vote.

Topping brought a large class-action arbitration case against SLPS earlier this year. In it, the union argues more than 1,000 members are being underpaid compared to colleagues because the district isn’t obeying the agreed-upon salary schedule.

But Whisenhunt said the actual number of teachers eligible for compensation in the case is fewer than 400 and that Topping is not being honest about the case.

“We’re talking about people’s salaries, their pensions, their livelihoods. And whatever information we give them must be accurate,” he said.

Topping declined an interview and directed a reporter to statements made on Facebook and emailed to members.

“These charges are a collection of untruths, exaggerations, and differences of opinion intended to inflame your emotions, but not one of them rises to the level of a violation of our constitution, a prerequisite for recall,” Topping wrote.

New contract negotiations between SLPS and the union were expected to begin this fall. But those talks could be postponed if union leadership is in flux. AFT 420’s current contract runs through the end of June 2020.

A two-thirds vote of present members is needed to remove Topping. Turnout could be low, given the meeting is happening during summer break. If Topping is ousted, the local’s vice president, Linda Bell, would take over for the remainder of the term, which runs through next spring.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

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