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Supervisors Opinion

No Time for Old Tactics

Management and unions must work together in the face of an unprecedented funding crisis for public schools.

It has been another tough spring for school districts across the nation. The economic crisis of the past two years is hitting school systems hard as districts plan for the 2010-2011 school year. State support to schools continues to decline, and the "soft landing" afforded by federal stimulus monies is a thing of the past. School districts must cut costs but find their options constrained by restrictive labor agreements in addition to the collective bargaining process itself. If ever there was a time for a new approach to bargaining, it is now.

Many budget experts predicted that 2010-2011 would be the toughest year for schools. For example, more school districts in Orange County, Calif., have filed negative or qualified budgets than in previous years, meaning that they cannot maintain required budget reserves for the next couple of years. In other words, districts do not have the reserves, or savings account, to cover their deficit between increased expenditures and decreasing revenues. Even as state funding declines, school districts are locked into automatic pay increases for employees in the form of step-and-column advancement for longevity. In many places, freezing these pay raises can only be agreed to through the bargaining process.

Of course, there is severe pressure on school districts to rein in costs, given that there is little hope of increased funding from states, which are facing severe budget cuts to all services. School districts will have to enter another round of belt-tightening to balance budgets.

Goals and Processes Not Aligned

The content of individual labor contracts generates costs for districts, but a bigger problem is the systematic mismatch between separate but interconnected budget and bargaining cycles. The timelines for budget implementation and collective bargaining prevent measured action. For example, California Education Code requires districts to provide notice to teachers of potential job reductions by March 15; however, districts make budgets in June for the following school year. To further complicate the matter, these budgets are often preliminary, as California often passes its budget in the summer. It is therefore hard for bargaining teams to know when to pull the trigger on a final deal.

School districts have to preliminarily lay off teachers in order to keep options open as the budget picture develops through the spring. For the past five years, layoffs have become a rite of spring, like the swallows returning to Capistrano. In California, more than 23,000 pink slips were handed to teachers on March 15, the statutory deadline to notify teachers of potential job losses. Layoffs can be avoided if salary concessions are arrived at through collective bargaining, but by its very nature, collective bargaining is a time consuming process.

Bargaining is taking longer now simply because budget cuts were made a long time ago. Districts have already cut down to the bone. They can reduce the number of employees who serve children—this means teachers mostly, thereby raising the number of students assigned to remaining teachers— or they can cut salaries and/or health and welfare benefits for all employees.

Both choices are unpopular with labor unions. Salary and job preservation are leverage points during collective bargaining. Traditional collective bargaining between teacher unions and individual school boards is fraught with tension, as elected officials seek to preserve management rights and protect programs for students while the main, but not sole, goal of teacher unions is to protect conditions for their members. Even when labor and management have the same interests, the process of collective bargaining and the complex scenario in which it takes place inhibits creative solutions.

The Public Wants Change

The court of public opinion is exerting additional pressure this time around. The public has mostly embraced the educational reform ideas embodied in recent developments like state content standards, standardized testing and No Child Left Behind. Parents also wish to exercise their rights as consumers—that is, they want educational choices for their children, as evidenced by both the success of choice programs within public schools and the charter school movement.

Teacher unions face internal pressures as well. A sizeable number of their dues paying members are disillusioned with unions. New teachers hired since 2000 are causing fractures in unions dominated by veterans who remember the hard-fought battles to win favorable working conditions like seniority rights. The newer generation of teachers questions the very need for collective bargaining, particularly if it protects senior teachers over those with less seniority. These are the future teacher leaders, and unions are harming their own future by discarding them.

District leaders and unions have a common interest to meet the demands of the public in order to preserve public education itself. Collective bargaining cannot be seen as an obstacle to progress. Many Americans have lost jobs or suffered salary cuts in this recession. They expect teachers and school workers to reduce compensation if that results in the preservation of school programs and quality education for students. The public expects us to protect good teachers and remove bad teachers. Progressive union leaders recognize this.

Legislatures may move to undo laws that prohibit reasonable solutions. In the short term, it is unrealistic to think that collective bargaining will go away. But it is realistic to expect negotiating teams to plan collective bargaining so that decisions are made in a timely way to preserve the stability of school organizations. This is not the time for traditional oppositional bargaining where negotiation teams stake out positions based on individual needs. In these scenarios, delay is a tactic. Districts can't afford to waste time in a negotiations dance when they are in danger of going broke. In recognition of an unusually deep recession, many unions have made temporary concessions in the form of unpaid work days, or furloughs, but the process still takes too long and is often held to ransom by old bargaining methods.

There Is Another Way

It is possible to incorporate these common interests—the health of public education, student achievement, stability and fiscal solvency— into collective bargaining between school management and employees. Core values bargaining, win-win bargaining, or interest-based bargaining are all approaches that seek to find mutually acceptable solutions in a timely way, based on developing trust between teams by transparently sharing data and information.

In these scenarios, management and unions each identify common core interests and use them as a platform to develop solutions. Bargaining is seen as an ongoing process to create solutions that address the content of agreements, the process through which agreements are reached, and the relationships that need to be developed to implement successful agreements.

The deliberate delaying tactics of the traditional positional bargaining of the past, the withholding of budget information, and the deliberate manipulation of facts and context to win the best deal at the expense of the other side will no longer work in the current climate. The public demands more. Public schools have been pushed to the edge of a giant chasm by the economic crisis. It is in everybody's interest, especially our students', for both school management and labor unions to prevent a free-fall.

Eamonn O'Donovan is assistant superintendent of human resources to Los Alamitos Unified School District in California.