The Collective Bargaining Tightrope

For superintendent, the challenge is to put aside personal feelings and politics to concentrate on student needs by ROGER PROSISE AND LYNN HIMES

The collective bargaining process between a board of education and a teachers' union can have wide-ranging effects, not only for board members and teachers but also for the community. The superintendent, often caught in the middle, must put politics aside and focus on doing what’s right for the students.

Understanding the collective bargaining process and the roles played by teachers, the teachers’ union, the board, the superintendent and the public can help the district’s chief executive gain perspective and maintain balance in an atmosphere of conflict.

Our Experience
School District 101 is a small district in Illinois where parents and community members recognize the value of education and actively support the schools. Historically, teachers, parents and administrators have enjoyed a good relationship.

District 101, serving about 1,000 students in grades K-8, is in an affluent community. But at the time of the bargaining process five years ago, the school district had limited funds and the board of education was financially conservative.

The teachers' union, however, had a different outlook. Teachers saw their salaries as significantly lower than the salaries of teachers in neighboring districts, which was true in some instances. The difference in top salary for teachers with masters’ degrees varied by almost $20,000 among three neighboring districts.

The teachers in School District 101 initially demanded a 30 percent raise when the board was thinking more along the lines of a 5 percent annual salary increase. Money became the divisive issue between the board and the union, although throughout the negotiations the teachers’ bargaining team attempted to make it appear as though the board needed to address other issues.

Generally, the teachers criticized administrative decisions unrelated to collective bargaining. This may have been an effort on the part of the teachers’ union to demonstrate to the board that teachers were more valuable and capable than administrators, thus tempting the board to reward teachers with higher salaries.

Although the board was committed to being fiscally responsible to the community, it appeared to be at the expense of teachers' salaries. This was apparent in the decision by the board and the teachers to dramatically change the teachers' salary schedule system.

When the board hired a new teacher, the salary schedule was used for initial placement. Once employed in the district, teachers did not move along the salary schedule based on experience and education. Instead, these teachers received an annual percentage increase of between 4 and 5 percent and a fixed stipend for graduate courses.

For example, a teacher employed in the district for five years who recently completed a master’s degree program did not move into the master’s degree lane. That teacher received an annual stipend. A teacher who received a stipend, which was approximately $900 for every three- hour course, could conceivably receive thousands of dollars less in salary from the stipend compensation plan compared to a salary schedule compensation plan.

Although the board of education was aware of the financial ramifications of the new salary schedule and may have been justified in changing the system, the teachers did not fully understand the consequences of the new plan.

The board may have thought the teachers understood the new compensation plan and that it wasn’t their responsibility to explain it to them. Or the board may have used this as an opportunity to take advantage of the teachers’ lack of understanding of finance. Regardless, the change resulted in some teachers receiving lower salaries than they would have received had the original salary schedule been maintained.

Within two years, the new teacher salary schedule/compensation plan devastated the relationship between the school board and the district’s teachers. Realizing that they were being shortchanged, the teachers felt misled by the board. Thus began the effort to reach an agreement through collective bargaining. The process the board and union experienced in School District 101 is typical of collective bargaining processes across the country.

The Early Stages
The collective bargaining process can take anywhere from 3 to 18 months. During the initial stage, the teachers' union assumes a low profile and issues are discussed in a congenial manner. The longer the negotiation process drags on, however, the more likely teachers are to begin wearing pro-teacher pins or buttons, boycotting afterschool meetings and events and entering and exiting school as a group. These displays of unity are designed to influence the board to reach an agreement in favor of the teachers.

If the initial tactics are ineffective, the teachers' union may send a letter to community residents outlining their version of the status of the collective bargaining. The letter may create unrest among residents and add a cadre of anxious and irate parents to the audience at board meetings.

The majority of the parents who attend these meetings will have drawn conclusions based on misinformation. The superintendent or another board member will need to clarify issues, answer questions and provide an accurate description of the board’s position. When speaking with parents and community members, particularly during times of controversy, the integrity of the superintendent and board is vital to convincing parents that the board is acting responsibly and in the best interest of students.

The superintendent must be well-informed about teachers’ unions plans. What is the likelihood of a teachers' strike? Are they planning a work slowdown or a picket line? Being privy to this kind of sensitive information requires access to reliable sources.

Superintendents must develop and maintain strong relationships with formal and informal leaders of the teaching staff and community. These relationships are formed throughout the year. It is unrealistic to expect a superintendent to be able to initiate these relationships during a crisis. The superintendent’s track record over time determines whether people look upon him or her as someone who makes decisions in students’ best interests, treats people fairly and professionally and can be trusted to act in the best interests of the school district.

Clear and regular communication between the board of education and its negotiations team is crucial. The board of education team represents and speaks for the full board so the board should establish expectations, guidelines and parameters for the negotiations team prior to their start. Communication also creates an essential feeling of empowerment for the negotiations team.

The board and its team should not operate in an "us against them" mode. Rather, the board team should try to understand the teachers' position and recognize that, ultimately, the board of education, teachers and administrators must work together to forward the school district’s mission. Members of the bargaining teams should clearly identify key issues and understand the ramifications of each decision. If bargaining sessions become unprofessional or personal issues surface, the leaders of both teams are responsible for refocusing the discussions.

Bargaining Process
As an initial step in the bargaining process, the teachers’ union presents a list of requests to the board. During the preparation of the board's initial response, its attorney advises the board on the provisions that should be in a collective bargaining agreement and those already covered in state or federal statues.

The attorney helps draft the language to describe the working conditions of the bargaining unit and the rationale for the current compensation plan. Key factors involved in developing a compensation plan are the current financial condition of the district, satisfaction with teaching staff and the rate of compensation in neighboring districts. Interestingly, student achievement is at best a secondary factor.

An attorney with negotiating experience also is able to alert the board's negotiating team to traps and pitfalls in the union’s initial proposals and subsequent fallback proposals. Thus, the attorney identifies for the board where the union's proposals go beyond the board's statutory duty to its bargaining unit employees or where the union's proposals are not "standard in collective bargaining units," thus preventing the board from agreeing to unnecessary or burdensome duties or procedures.

In District 101, the teachers' team was led by a UniServ director, a professional negotiator employed by the teachers' association to provide expertise and advice on developing contract proposals and negotiating strategy. The UniServ director's role is to build teamwork among the members of the bargaining team, draft bargaining proposals, provide expertise in bargaining strategy and ensure that the new bargaining unit believes the teachers received beneficial service for their dues.

The UniServ director can provide examples of contract language from other local districts or districts elsewhere with similar characteristics as well as the union's model agreement that includes everything the union desires in a collective bargaining agreement. From these examples the UniServ director can guide the bargaining unit team proposals on issues of the most interest to the local group.

In our situation, the other teachers’ team members included "single-issue people" who had their own individual agendas to protect; those chosen by the bargaining unit to advocate positions the teachers believed would be unpopular with the school board; and teachers who were considered influential in the union and could sell the final agreement to the general membership.

Mediating Conflict
When several lengthy bargaining sessions do not result in an agreement between the two parties, either party may request the involvement of a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The other party must agree to involve the FMCS mediator or pay the entire cost of a private mediator. Thus, private mediators are seldom used for collective bargaining resolution.

Mediators in the public sector have no authority to demand the presence of either party at bargaining or to insist either party change its position at any time. Mediators do not judge the worth of either party's position or proposals nor do they care where the agreement falls along the continuum between the two sides’ demands. Rather, they are concerned only that an agreement is reached and that the parties understand that agreement, regardless of the type of agreement or the duration or cost of the implementation of the agreement. Mediators exert their influence by controlling the bargaining process, including the procedure the parties use to exchange information and proposals.

Typically, mediators arrive on the scene after the parties have met so often that they are tired of each other and the other side's arguments on the open issues. Consequently, they tend to orchestrate "sidebar" meetings of small groups representing the bargaining teams in an effort to foster more candid discussion about the needs of the parties and the possibilities for agreement.

As mediators deal with each bargaining team individually, they explore areas in that team's bargaining position that might be changed. The superintendent’s role with the mediator is simply to listen and share information.

Going Public
The longer the bargaining process drags on, the greater the community’s interest. After all, the public will likely be affected by the outcome as it relates to taxes, parent-educator relationships, staff morale or the image of the school district.

The media is interested in contract negotiations for obvious reasons: It's newsworthy. The more controversial the process, the more the media’s interest increases. In fact, depending on the size of the school district and the competition from other newsworthy events, contract negotiations could be the biggest story in town.

The board and superintendent should determine the best approach for communicating with the community and media. For example, the board may choose to release a prepared statement on the status of negotiations and identify one or two board members who have effective communication skills to serve as spokespersons.

The board of education and teachers' union should not negotiate through the media. Any comments made to the media should be accurate and general in nature. Because the sides eventually will reach an agreement on a contract, comments made during the negotiations process could have a negative effect on morale after settlement.

Superintendent’s Role
The superintendent is directly and indirectly involved in the process, serving as a resource, guide and counselor to the school board, as well as a source of public information for the teachers’ union. The superintendent should make recommendations to the board of education based on the circumstances of the district. For example, if the teachers' union is bargaining for smaller class size, the superintendent is responsible for researching the issue and informing the board of the ramifications of granting this request.

With regard to the teachers' union, the superintendent functions as a source of information regarding the school district's budget and financial audit. Other central-office personnel, such as the business manager, also serve as a resource for the board and teachers’ union.

The superintendent, working for the board of education while simultaneously needing the support of teachers to develop school improvement initiatives, may be caught in the middle of the bargaining process. During negotiations, the board may believe the superintendent is too supportive of teachers and teachers may believe the CEO is too closely aligned to the board.

How does the superintendent balance these demands? Try to put power and politics to the side and focus on what’s best for the students. To focus on students, the superintendent should avoid focusing on personalities and remember it is not personal. Eventually, the teachers and board will reach an agreement, and more than anyone, the superintendent will have to work constructively with both groups. When the board and teachers reflect on the collective bargaining process, the superintendent wants them to remember that he or she focused on issues, not power and politics.

Healing Wounds
When the negotiations process is saturated with conflict, anger and strife, the school district suffers. The outcome will be poor relations and bitter feelings among and between all members of the school district and community.

In District 101, there were some bitter feelings among teachers, parents and board members. Parents and teachers resented the negative publicity that resulted from the threatened strike. Parents were concerned that since teachers did not receive the salary increase they sought, teachers would take out their frustrations on children. The parents responded by becoming more visible in school.

Even though time has a way of healing wounds, the superintendent should immediately develop a plan to build morale and to re-establish relationships among members of the school community. In District 101, a consultant worked with teachers, parents and board members to identify specific problems and develop steps to resolve the problems.

Now, two years since we finalized our last contract, it’s difficult to determine how useful the consultant was in rebuilding morale. However, it was incumbent on the superintendent to do whatever possible to ensure the teachers, administrators and community turned their focus away from the conflict and toward the education of the community’s young people.

Roger Prosise is superintendent of Diamond Lake School District 76, 25807 Diamond Lake Road, Mundelein, IL 60060. E-mail: rprosise@d76.lake.k12.il.us. Lynn Himes is a senior partner with the law firm of Scariano, Ellch, Himes and Petrarca in Chicago.