To shrink class sizes in Haverhill (Mass.) Public Schools, members of the Haverhill Public School Committee, the equivalent of a board of education, have been pushing the district's four curriculum supervisors to teach math, English, science and social studies classes in grades 6-12.
But the district's administrative union, the Haverhill Public Schools Administrative and supervisory Group, is having none of that.
Beyond stretching the supervisors too thin, the added duties cannot be imposed because they would have to be negotiated, says Tim Maroney, administrative union president at Haverhill schools. "It's a contractual thing," says Maroney, also an assistant principal at Consentino Middle School. "It needs to be bargained."
In another school district in the Northeast, one school official who did not want to be identified described an atmosphere of mistrust, immobility and stalemate when an administrative union was created after 30 years without one. Rules prevented administrators from speaking with a school board member unless another administrator was present.
And at one point, when a well-liked administrator was offered a job out of the district, the school board did not have the flexibility to make a financial counteroffer that diverged from the salary guidelines of the administrative union contract. The district was only able to keep the administrator, the school official says, after pulling additional money from the general fund, potentially cutting into school programs, rather than tapping into funds earmarked for salaries.
Many school superintendents and board members say unions who advocate for and protect principals, assistant principals and other supervisors can erode the flexibility they need to run an efficient district by running them through a gauntlet of bureaucratic restrictions and red tape, like the Northeast district's financial runaround. In the extreme, administrative unions, which can strike and which have their own bylaws like other unions, can put a district in a state of near paralysis when administrators suddenly balk at additional duties outside the union contract, they say.
But for every critic, K12 administrative unions have advocates who say they contribute to improved student achievement and provide a set of checks and balances in a system that exerts undue pressure on administrators such as principals-a minority among the wellorganized teachers they supervise.
"Principals and assistant principals are in the middle of the sandwich," says Jill Levy, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, the national administrative union. "They are getting pressure from below and above, and are the only accountable people in the system.If something goes wrong in a school, 'It's the principal. It's the assistant principal.' They feel their voices are not heard because there are louder voices out there. There are many other school unions with larger memberships and deeper pockets."
Judith Wilson, superintendent of Princeton (N.J.) Regional Schools, says administrative unions have taken on more work than they had 30 years ago, when administrative unions were fledgling organizations. "There's a lot of emphasis on student achievement and professional learning," she says. Administrator workshops and other on-the-job educational programs, for example, foster cooperation between districts and unions, Wilson and other union advocates say.
Such programs can help curb administrative turnover and subsequently improve student achievement. A study last year by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a Denver research group, linked superintendent longevity with improved student achievement, even as early as the second year of the superintendent's tenure. But it's not just limited to superintendents, according to Tim Waters, McREL's chief executive. He says the study's findings could also be applied to others, including principals and assistant principals. "The stability of superintendent leadership also has an impact on the leadership team," Waters says.
Colleagues or Adversaries?
The kind of cooperation that Wilson cites wasn't always clear. Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, has mixed feelings about the union to which his administrators belonged when he was superintendent of the same Princeton district some 30 years ago.
True, the union helped principals and other supervisors get pay raises equivalent to those of other district workers, Houston recalls. He says the union played an important protective role for administrators who received unwarranted and disrespectful comments from some board members. "Sometimes there was a tendency of the board to degrade administrators and say bad things about them when it came time for salary discussions, saying they're already high paid and we'll give them smaller percentage raises than others," Houston recalls. "The positive thing I saw in Princeton was having a union that stopped them."
But he says there was a downside too. He recalls administrators who refused to take on additional work, however light, that their contract did not cover.
"The administrators were my team, the people I'm expecting to get the job done, but sometimes they would put on their union hat," recalls Houston. "All of a sudden we weren't colleagues anymore-we were adversaries. As a superintendent I found it very awkward because I had to keep changing my vision of who they were."
Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan of Haverhill Public Schools agrees with the union that curriculum supervisors have too much on their plates to have additional teaching responsibilities. Robert Gilman, Haverhill's committee president, says several benefi ts of having the supervisors teach classes include possibly reducing class sizes and giving supervisors a chance to connect to the "real world" of teaching. But Gilman found about twice as many disadvantages, including limiting the administrative and curriculum decision-making role of supervisors while shifting that work to principals and others.
Overall, Buchanan prefers not to work with administrative unions. "If I had my choice, I would say 'no union' because sometimes you could do things quicker, such as if I wanted to make a leadership change and send a principal to another school," he says. Such a move could take two months with the administrative union's finger in the pie. By that time, tensions at a school whose teachers and principal are at odds, for example, could boil over beyond a crisis, he adds.
Demotion and Dismissal
A war of words last year between a Los Angeles Times columnist and the Los Angeles Unified School District's administrative union underscored the charged emotions surrounding union protection of its administrators. The columnist took the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles union to task for defending without investigation an elementary school principal who some parents had complained was too tough on their children, for example, by keeping them out of class for minor problems. Unrelated to the controversy, the principal ultimately retired.
But union leaders and others dismiss a common criticism-that administrative unions hamper district progress by making it difficult for a superintendent to demote or dismiss an underperforming principal or supervisor.
Fending off such criticism, union proponents say the superintendent, regardless of a union, has great power. "Th ere's nothing in any contract in any state that I know of where a superintendent cannot remove someone for poor performance," says Ernest Logan, president of New York City public schools' administrative union, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. "Yes, there's a due process aspect to it, but the system is set up so management can do what it needs to do to put effective people in place."
Under contract, the Los Angeles schools must meet a range of criteria before an allegedly poorly performing administrator can be demoted or dismissed. For example, the administrative union can represent an administrator when he or she meets with a supervisor to discuss the case. Further, Hughes says, the administrator can appeal the decision, have the case reviewed by an independent "peer assistance" panel, and voluntarily enter a program of suggested improvements.
Seeking Flexibility in Pay
A new policy in the North Haledon (N.J.) School District points to the lack of flexibility-in this case involving compensation-that districts beholden to an administrative union might have to endure. Under a new policy that the school board passed over the summer, Superintendent Donna Cardiello, who was appointed in August but started working in the district in 1986 as a teacher, will receive pay hikes based on performance rather than the number of years she has been superintendent. Th e board enacted the policy to diff erentiate administrative salary guidelines from those of teachers, says Cardiello, adding that the district has left performance measurements undefi ned for now.
The district was able to make the change because its administrators do not have a labor union, Cardiello says. Administrative unions around the country may be more open to creative incentive plans, and the New York City Department of Education could serve as the model.
The New York City union, with 6,000 members, represents principals, assistant principals, districtwide and centrally based administrators, as well as directors and assistant directors of city-funded day care or early childhood centers.
Logan, the New York City administrative union head, says administrators nationwide want to incorporate incentivebased elements of the contract that New York City hammered out with its administrators last April, such as a provision for rewarding turnaround specialists.
The contract, which runs through early 2010, aligns with the union's progressive history. The contract provides $25,000 annual bonuses for supervisors whose schools perform well, measured by benchmarks including test scores, student attendance and school safety. Top principals who spend three years to help turn around a troubled school could also earn up to $25,000 a year on top of their salaries.
The agreement also gives new powers and authority to principals over curriculum, spending, teacher training and other critical areas. Giving more autonomy for principals is a trend that's building because it balances the greater accountability that administrators are being held to under the No Child Left Behind law, says Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Principals can attain that autonomy through their administrative unions or through a "solid" contract that gives them three or four years on the job and spells out their duties, he says.
Dan Weisberg, the NYC education department's chief executive for labor policy and implementation, also lauded the contract, particularly for setting administrative performance benchmarks. "The cornerstone of our reform efforts is to empower principals and then to hold them accountable for academic results in their schools," Weisberg says.
A program funded by the city education department helps underperforming administrators find new work in the system, either in other administrative positions if they could improve their administrative skills or back to teaching positions.
A Better Balance
There are signs, however anecdotal, that administrative unions are playing a more positive role. Today more educators are learning a valuable lesson, says Wilson, by looking at the big picture and considering the needs of many, not just a few. That approach is one that many say has been lacking in negotiations with administrative unions.
"There has been an evolution where there's a lot more focus on common goals," Wilson says. "The change is not particular to Princeton. There's a really well-grounded common understanding of not living in the extreme. It's not about one or the other. It's not about pushing either a union side or a greater good side to an extreme. I think there might be more balance in all our perspectives."
Allan Richter is a freelance writer based in Long Island, N.Y.