When the La Joya school board met to discuss teacher pay last week, members of the American Federation of Teachers had signs ready.
Superintendent Gisela Saenz and the school board discussed a $2,000 raise for teachers during July. After reviewing the raises approved by other districts, though, the AFT pushed for higher pay.
“We won’t FORGET November 2020,” read an AFT sign, referencing the November 2020 election, when four school board seats will appear on the ballot.
Trustees apparently took notice.
They proposed a $3,250 raise for teachers, according to a news release from the La Joya Independent School District.
Teachers with 6 to 10 years of experience would receive $3,650, teachers with 11 to 20 years of experience would receive $4,050 and teachers with more than 21 years of experience would receive $4,450.
With support from the school board, the AFT had scored a major win for teachers. The aggressive advocacy, however, also prompted a letter from attorney Jaime “Jerry” Muñoz, who represents the district.
“Your most recent campaign targeting Trustees and elections serves absolutely no purpose. In fact, it damages the very relationship between our Organizations,” according to the letter dated Aug. 7. “The District respectfully requests that you cease and desist from threatening any trustee or any future election. Should you fail to refrain from this behavior, the District will have no choice but to take further legal action against you and the organization you represent.”
Muñoz said the school district considered the signs threatening, inappropriate and unnecessary.
“Really, is that why teachers are paying dues?” Muñoz said. “So they can send threatening messages to the administration?”
J.J. Luna, an AFT representative who received the letter, said the signs weren’t threats — they were constitutionally protected speech.
“It’s so bogus,” said Luna, a former social studies teacher. “We live in America, where we have freedom of speech.”
An attorney for Texas AFT responded on Aug. 8.
“As part of its campaign for a pay increase and specifically in connection with the school board meeting on the evening of August 7, La Joya AFT made signs and posters urging its members and other community members not to forget how board members voted on the pay increase this year when it comes time for the next trustee election in November 2020,” according to the AFT letter.
“Inasmuch as this speech involves an election for public office, the qualifications and voting records of those running for office, and the priorities for spending of public monies, La Joya AFT engaged in ‘core’ political speech entitled to the highest protection by our state and federal constitutions.”
While the signs may rankle the district, they’re protected by the First Amendment, according to the letter, which is signed by Martha P. Owen, an attorney at Austin-based law firm Deats, Durst & Owen.
“La Joya AFT will not abide by the District’s directive to cease and desist its constitutionally protected speech,” according to the AFT letter. “Nor will it be intimidated by the District’s threats of legal action. Instead, it will continue to engage in activities and speech designed to promote and protect the interests of its members and to hold the board and the administration accountable to voters.”