WINCHESTER — As of May 1, Virginia teachers and staff will have the ability to establish unions in their school districts.

Public educators will be able to do so as a result of the General Assembly overturning a prohibition in 2020 that prevented collective bargaining in schools.

Collective bargaining is a process that requires school administrators and educators to negotiate together through a written agreement.

The Virginia Education Association (VEA) advocated to lift the ban. Established in 1863, the VEA describes itself as a “union dedicated to advancing quality instruction and curriculum, adequate funding, and excellent working conditions for Virginia public employees.”

The Winchester Education Association (WEA) is the only local VEA-affiliated chapter that has expressed interest in working toward unionizing staff in Winchester Public Schools.

WEA President Michael Siraguse recently said in an email to The Winchester Star that the WEA is getting ready to begin talks with the School Board and City Council on the matter.

He noted that the WEA will need authorization cards from 50% of WPS staff plus one more member to make a simple majority to move forward. The WEA currently has about 190 members out of approximately 1,100 staff positions in the school division.

If a simple majority agrees to pursue collective bargaining, a resolution must be sent to the School Board. The board will then have 120 days to consider the request.

“Our WPS staff deserve a voice at the bargaining table, and we appreciate how our superintendent and [school board] have listened to us over the past years,” Siraguse said. “I’m proud of my members, and I look forward to collective bargaining in the future. Any opportunity I can get to highlight the important work we do, and to advocate for top notch working conditions for staff (and students), I’m going to take.”

Siraguse said the WEA wants to prioritize funding for classroom positions, mental health, counseling and nursing support and ensure that custodians, bus drivers, aides and other frontline support staff get the support they need.

The WEA also hopes that the community has seen the impact and issues the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to education, Siraguse said.

“There’s nothing radical about a Union or Association,” he said. “We just want our members to be respected, to be able to work safely in our buildings, and to support our families and communities. Top notch schools require funding, and maintaining top notch schools requires everyone in a community to work towards achieving that.”

When contacted by The Star, Frederick County Education Association President Shaniqua Williams said in an email that “as far as collective bargaining is concerned, it is a complicated issue and we are not in a space to share or discuss details.”

Williams added that she and the FCEA board members are not making any further comments on the matter at the moment.

Clarke County Education Association President Pamela Thompson did not respond to a request to comment.

VEA President James Fedderman said in an interview with The Star that he believes all chapters of the VEA are pursuing or engaging in the possibility of collective bargaining.

He said education unions would allow school divisions to better identify and improve student learning by creating higher wages for staff and creating an outlet to address racial and social inequities in schools.

His advice for chapter leaders pursuing collective bargaining is to “keep building meaningful relationships and let every decision be made based upon what’s going to improve student outcomes.”