Gayle Force

A vigorous advocate for teachers and the bane of HISD administrators, confrontational union boss Gayle Fallon wields a growing power over the direction of Houston's public schools

Union work can be all-consuming, and it was destroying the marriage of the president, John O'Sullivan, who resigned in midterm. In the fall of 1982, the executive council appointed Fallon as his replacement, and she has been in office ever since. The last person to run against her won 28 votes.

Once it was clear she would replace O'Sullivan, Fallon began planning a demonstration. O'Sullivan was leery of the idea. If teachers didn't show up, Fallon would look like a fool in her first leadership action. But Fallon knew the mood of her members, who felt they had been treated like second-class citizens by then-superintendent Billy Reagan. A thousand of them showed up at a school board meeting, packed the auditorium and demonstrated on the sidewalks, many of them with their checks pinned to their shirts. Fallon called it the "March for Dignity," and it was the first of many actions the union took to publicize its issues.

The union has been much less demonstrative in the past few years, Fallon says, and she thinks she may have to teach a new generation of teachers who didn't grow up in the confrontation politics of the late '60s and early '70s. But right now, she says, the HFT is preoccupied with fighting grievances, which she says have been increasing dramatically during the last two years. Grievances that used to be settled at lower levels are now being fought by the district, Fallon says, and she points to the growth of the district's legal bills and staff.

The district's in-house legal staff has increased from one lawyer to as many as four and five, and two outside firms have been added to handle litigation. Fallon notes that during the eight-year period from 1985 to 1992, the district's legal budget was $3.28 million, but in the last two years alone it has spent more than $2.4 million on legal work. (The district confirmed those figures. More than $680,000 of those fees went to the Haynes and Boone law firm to conduct an internal investigation of the district's alternative certification program.) Under the past two superintendents, Fallon says, the union never filed a lawsuit against the district. Now the HFT has several in the works, and she has had to add staff and part-time law students to handle the union's growing list of grievances and appeals. The union's legal fees have tripled in the past two years.

The HFT does not win friends among all teachers for its aggressive defense of its members, especially when those members are viewed as incompetent by their peers.

"Look," Fallon says, "teachers are often aware they're doing a bad job. We just don't want them blind-sided. More often they want out with some shred of human dignity."

Fallon says the union tries to settle such cases quietly, so that the teacher can quit without having been fired. But if the teacher insists on an aggressive defense, the union will provide it.

Board members have often complained that it's difficult to fire incompetent teachers, but Fallon scoffs at that notion. For one thing, teachers are on probation during their first three years of work, and can be fired at will. That probationary period can be extended a fourth year if the district is uncertain. She also says a skilled principal can fire any teacher in three to four steps. The principal writes down what the teacher is doing wrong and recommends a way to correct it. The principal must then document the teacher's failure to correct the problem and can move to terminate.

On a rainy Friday morning at the end of June, Fallon showed up at the union's office on Weslayan, around the corner from HISD's Richmond Avenue headquarters, wearing olive drab shorts and shirt, with her godson, Charles Vega. A precocious eight-year-old with a big voice, Charles has been hanging out with Fallon since she met him when her neighbor in Spring had him in foster care.

Fallon's small office is cluttered with plaques, photographs and newspaper clippings, including one in which the Pope declared to Polish workers the universal right of labor to organize. The numbers of a couple of television reporters are stuck on the bulletin board near her desk.

While Charles settles down to watch a videotape in the outer office and Fallon reminisces about the history of the union, a call comes in from her 24-year-old son, James Fallon III, better known as Jamie. A third-year law student at the University of Houston, Jamie Fallon has grown up in the union. Now he is helping his mother, whom he describes as his best friend, fight grievances. Fallon, who has been calm and cheerful, starts to heat up as she listens to what her son is telling her. The hearing officer, an HISD administrator, has refused to let the union present an expert witness, Gerald Treece, the dean of the South Texas College of Law. The union wanted to present Treece as an expert on due process, which the union contends the administration constantly violates in its investigations of employees for discipline and possible termination.

"Tell them we will turn around and grieve them for obstruction of the grievance procedure," Fallon tells her son. "This is a new low standard and we're not going to let them get away with it."

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