Priorities and Judgment Calls: A Collective Bargaining Recap

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.

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8 Responses to Priorities and Judgment Calls: A Collective Bargaining Recap

  1. Laura Chern says:

    Please clarify something for me. Your Administrators did the actual negotiating and the Board voted on the CBA? Did any Board member participate in the actual negotiations? I always assumed that one or more elected school board members participated in the negotiations. Thanks for the summary.

    • Laura —

      Board members typically do not participate in the actual bargaining. We set the parameters of what our bargaining position will be, get regular updates, and have to sign-off on the various compromises and concessions that are the hallmark of bargaining.

  2. Kristine Gallagher says:

    Thanks to MTI’s advocacy, 4-K teachers are paid a worthy wage. The rising tide raises all boats.

  3. Kati Walsh says:

    I just want to comment on the starting salary and incentives part. As a rather new teacher, I can tell you what I was looking for in a new teaching job and it was not a about who was going to offer me a bonus or if the starting salary was a few thousand more. I was looking for a district where I had job security and where I knew I was going to get the proper support to be successful as a teacher. If you want to retain new teachers, they need to be treated respectfully. Salary is only a SMALL part of respect.

    On another note, the provision that states “instructional duties where the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction requires that such be performed by a certificated teacher” is important for many reasons. The new change in the language is NOT a win for the students. I’ve shared my experience with you and the rest of the board both in email and during the Madison Prep exchange. I can send it to you again if you’d like. This provision doesn’t prevent us from doing what is best for students but changing the language DOES affect job security and making sure the teachers working with our students are union. Do I need to follow this statement with ALL the reasons why a union is so important for teachers AND STUDENTS? I feel like if you don’t understand this by now, you never will. Anyone who doesn’t understand this has no business on a PUBLIC school board.

  4. Larry Winkler says:

    Thank you, Ed, for this post clarifying how the board proceeded. I do have, however, in important quibble (it’s more an a quibble). It’s the statement that the board acts as an agent of the administration. That is a problem. The board must sit over the entire MMSD entity, administration, teachers, staff alike, and not take sides, except based on good and principled evidence. Of course, I’m not including MTI in this list, as MTI is an entity separate from MMSD, and has a relatively narrow role, representing teachers on wages, benefits and working conditions. Because the teacher-student connection IS the key relationship within a school, the board must ensure the quality of the connection, and ensure that teachers, separate from MTI, have a strong voice in determining that connection, even though in the context of bargaining with MTI, curriculum and other topics are not subjects of union bargaining.

  5. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    While I sound like a broken record, I do want to again thank you for taking the time and putting out your views for our consideration. Decisions with no clarification or explanation are very difficult for the greater population to understand. So again, thanks.

    I do completely disagree with the moving forward with negotiations for a contract with MTI. Three days of negotiation is simply not in the best interests of the community at large. Yes, I see how it can benefit MTI and by extension the teachers. But does this benefit the students? The parents? The tax payers?

    I understand the views that others have and I respect those views. I simply disagree with those views. To assert that a union is by definition a benfit to students is misguided. I do not state this to be argumentative at all and yes, there will be some form of research to support that position. But there is research to support the other view as well. Bluntly stated, MTI does not represent the children, it’s sole mission is to represent the teachers. The mere possession of a union card does not make the educator a better educator, nor does it make he or she a worse educator.

    While your reasoning for entering into an agreement with MTI in three days due to the judge’s ruling is well spelled out, does that imply that MMSD is simply that much smarter than the other districts? In addition, the “take it or leave it” mentality is way, way off base. If that were the case, then has negotiations in the past not been that way too with MTI doing the “take it or leave it approach”? Just because the balance of perceived / real power in the negotiations has shifted away from MTI does not mean that any future agreement would be adverse to the entire community.

    If the past belief has been that MTI and MMSD had a good working relationship, then Act 10 does not have to impact that relationship. The District could in fact follow the same work rules tomorrow as it has done so in the past. And the District could go to referendum to increase teacher’s salaries beyond Act 10. So if you and the Board believe that – “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.” – then you should be more than willing to put pay to a vote. And you should be more than willing to create a committee for the discussion of work rules that includes MTI.

    Ed, I would indeed question the fiduciary duty that was displayed with the quick negotiation and agreement with MTI. It is not my intention to sway anyone’s views in the least, I am simply pointing out that there are other views.

    Thanks again for the explanation.

  6. maerickson@wisc.edu says:

    I took a position in the MMSD because I had heard, and have now seen that the administration respected teachers, therapists,and all support staff. I could easily make $50,000 more working for the private sector in health care as I am a therapist (and I have done so), however I love working with kids…and helping them learn and grow. I hope that the Board, administrators and parents continue to support all employees within their bargaining units so that we maintain valuable, skilled employees. The teachers here in this district are amazing and deserve competitive pay, decent facilities and above all respect for caring for all of our children. Those who have not spent 7 hours with hundreds of students each day can not underestimate the energy, enthusiasm and dedication that these staff bring to the classrooms at 7:30-8:00 every morning. While many other professionals are having their morning coffee, teachers are dealing with unfed and unclothed children, kids living in shelters, abusive families, mental health issues, and many other non-teaching related issues. Closing the gap includes providing all families with basic health care, housing and nutrition…until that happens our teachers will continue to see a gap. SUPPORT OUR TEACHERS AND STAFF AND KEEP COLLECTIVE BARGAINING in place, Assure small class sizes and decent working conditions so that our students can at least have one safe, warm place to come to each day where the teachers are not so stressed out (financially and otherwise) that they can provide all of these services to our kids. Missy

  7. Marc Eisen says:

    Ed, thank you for clearly explaining the board’s actions and your thinking about the contract changes. This is a real public service.

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