Last week, after three days of negotiations, the Madison School Board unanimously approved new one-year collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with our teachers and other represented employees that will cover the 2013-14 school year.
Why is Madison the only one of the more than 400 school districts in Wisconsin to have rejected the recommendation of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) to hold tight on bargaining until the dust settles on the legal landscape? What was the thinking behind our seizing the opportunity presented by Judge Colas’ recent ruling to negotiate new agreements that will not go into effect for nine more months? Why were we willing to go where no other school district has so far been willing to tread?
Fair questions all. My answer has two parts. First, it seems clear that our community would prefer to see the policies and practices that the school district adopts to govern its relationship with its teachers arrived at through collective bargaining rather than imposed by administrative fiat. Second, WASB’s recommendation was based on the reasonable point that there are currently too many funding uncertainties for a school district to commit in bargaining to any particular level of salary or spending increase. We dealt with this by agreeing that we would not cut salaries but that the school district retained discretion to determine unilaterally at a subsequent date what level of salary increase, if any, we’ll be able to provide. This results in the irony that the one item that remains for bargaining under Act 10 is excluded under the terms of our new agreement.
The contours of last week’s bargaining were shaped by the interplay between the school board’s collective preference for reaching an agreement through collective bargaining, if possible, combined with its collective insistence on changes in the current agreement that impeded our efforts to promote student learning, close the achievement gap, and hire and retain a skilled and diverse workforce.
So long as one views our collective bargaining process as more than the school district presenting its demands on a take-it-or-leave-it basis (which isn’t all that far from my original position), the two goals of reaching an agreement and insisting on changes will inevitably come into tension over the question of how much compromise is appropriate. There is no single correct answer to that question and different individuals will draw the line at different points. The bottom line for our bargaining is that we ended up with agreements that our teachers and other staff were willing to ratify, that our administration was willing to recommend, and that all seven members of the School Board were willing to approve.
So what changes were made to the teacher CBA? The two big ones addressed the work preservation clause and the timeline for hiring new teachers.
For many years, the CBA has contained a provision that “instructional duties where the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction requires that such be performed by a certificated teacher” must be assigned to a member of MTI. Over the years this work preservation clause has proven to be a sturdy obstacle to number of proposed initiatives intended to benefit our students. It kept us from having four-year-old kindergarten for seven years. It has prevented the school district from entering into credit-recovery programs with local community organizations like Operation Fresh Start and the Goodman Community Center. It has created roadblocks to providing appropriately challenging curriculum for our most advanced learners. It stood as an obstacle to the Urban League’s proposal for Madison Prep as a non-instrumentality charter school and in fact was the reason I was unable to vote in favor of the Madison Prep proposal as it was presented to the School Board last December. (Whatever one thinks of Madison Prep, there should be agreement that the School Board’s decision on the proposal should have been based on its merits rather than determined by a clause in the teacher CBA.)
On the other hand, the work preservation clause did not further any of the school district’s interests. Considered strictly on its own terms, there was no reason for the district not to push to eliminate the provision.
And so the school district pushed, and MTI pushed back. The ultimate result of our bargaining was that the work preservation clause remained in the CBA, but with the very significant amendment that the school district can create exceptions more or less at its discretion. Any exception that affects programming provided to ten or more students will require School Board approval. (It is highly likely that any new program of this type would require School Board approval in any event.) In short, the work preservation clause in the CBA need no longer stand as an obstacle to our providing district students with the learning opportunities that best fit their needs. This is clearly a win for students.
The other major change to the CBA affects the hiring process for teachers. Currently, teachers have the opportunity to seek to transfer to vacant positions at other schools until four weeks prior to the start of the school year. Once the internal transfer process has been completed, principals can select applicants for teaching positions from outside the district. It is pretty obvious that the school district was placing itself at a competitive disadvantage in hiring if it could not tell a potential new hire where he or she would be teaching until a month before school starts.
According to the new procedure that is now set forth in the CBA, teachers who find themselves surplused will be placed in new positions by the school district by May 1 of each year. Then vacant positions will be posted for internal transfers. While a change was proposed in the district’s initial bargaining proposal, the final agreement retains the requirement that principals must select an internal transfer applicant if any applicants for a vacant position possess the minimum qualifications. The internal transfer process closes on June 15 and at that point principals can choose external candidates for any positions that remain unfilled. This change represents a big step toward a hiring process that maximizes our chances to hire the kind of skilled and diverse applicants we are looking for.
As I mention above, the new agreement does not address wages. At this point we don’t have sufficient information to make any sort of decision about raising salaries for the 2013-14 school year. Most importantly, we have no idea what the governor and new legislature will do about revenue limits for the next biennium and so we don’t know whether we will be able to increase our spending and by how much, or whether we will have to cut our per-pupil spending, as was the case for the first year of the current biennium.
In the new CBA the school district agrees not to reduce wages for the 2013-14 school year but retains discretion to bump them up. Personally, I hope that we will be able to increase what we pay. Wages have been frozen for the last two years (though teachers can still see pay increases by moving through the steps and lanes of the salary structure) and take-home pay has gone down. Our teachers deserve more. In addition, our starting teacher salary is currently toward the low end of those offered by districts with which we most often compete for new hires. Any increase would help our competitive position.
We also have retained the right to require teachers and staff to pay up to 10% of the cost of their health insurance. I see this intertwined with the salary issue. I would like us to see how much of a raise we can afford for next year, next consider how much the school district could save by requiring the 10% health insurance contribution, and then consider requiring that contribution and plowing all the savings into enhancing the level of salary increases that we are able to provide.
While the work preservation clause and the hiring process were the school district’s two principal points of emphasis in bargaining, changes were also made in other provisions of the CBA. For example, teachers will be obligated to attend an additional day of professional development, which will be scheduled right before school starts for students. Also, it will now be mandatory for teachers to attend at least two evenings of parent-teacher conferences. We are thus able to move away from the current approach of only offering conferences during the workday, which obviously isn’t very parent-friendly.
Another change affects the coaches of our high school sports teams. There will no longer be a preference for internal candidates in the hiring of coaches for sports teams as well as for debate and forensics, band and orchestra leaders and whatever you call the folks who are in charge of putting on plays and musicals. Instead, each assignment will be offered to the individual who, in the sole discretion of the school district, is the most qualified applicant. Each assignment will be for one year only. With these modifications, our high school principals should have added flexibility to hire the best person for each extracurricular position and to make changes when they are indicated, which should come as welcome news to our high school booster clubs. Other changes were made to the CBA that addressed less significant problems that particular provisions created.
Now that the rapid-fire negotiations are completed, it is natural to ask whether the school district could have driven a harder bargain. We almost certainly could have. Should we have? The answer to that one is not so easy. It depends on how one weighs the inchoate benefits that would have been realized from whatever specific changes to the CBA were foregone as a result of bargaining compromises against the equally unquantifiable boost to employee morale (and hence indirectly to student learning) that resulted from the school district’s willingness to offer up strategic compromises in the interests of reaching a relatively amicable agreement.
This is the type of issue that highlights the fact that elected School Board members like myself often have limited competence in important realms of our responsibilities. I have no way to assess this bargaining trade-off in any reasonable way on my own. I’m not in the schools on a daily basis. I don’t even have much anecdotal information on what’s going on. I can’t call upon my own experience or insight to tell how big a deal it is to reach an agreement through bargaining and so be able to avoid for an additional year what promised to be an involved and contentious employee handbook development process.
Deciding how hard to push in bargaining requires the kind of judgment call that is ultimately up to the Board to make. But I think that the sensitive weighing of unquantifiable values that it entails virtually compels us to rely on the guidance provided by our superintendent and other administrators. And if we are to have a smoothly functioning school district, we should be willing to accept that guidance – and in this case we were – even when it means that we chart a course that, at least so far, no other school district in the state has seen fit to follow.