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A (Not So) Hard Bargain

Contract negotiations have become a whole lot less contentious in many districts today, as the tenets of interest-based bargaining take hold.

Arnie Glassberg was perfectly happy for more than 20 years as an assistant superintendent. No superintendent rungs need be added to his career ladder, he swore to family and friends.

He had been around long enough to witness the agony of colleagues at that level as they got stuck in employee relation gnarls. "I had absolutely no interest in being a superintendent in a district that tied itself in a knot over union issues," says Glassberg, who is now (you guessed it) a superintendent.

Rather than a glutton for punishment, this leader had learned that management and unions can get along, solve problems together and even enjoy the process. Glassberg's unexpected career step was set in motion seven years ago, when he came to San Lorenzo (Calif.) Unified School District as assistant superintendent for business and attended his first teacher contract bargaining session there.

"There were probably 15 people at the table. I was listening. And I couldn't tell who were the teachers and who was management. ... I was totally blown away," he remembers.

That session wasn't a fluke. "If you don't know the people you truly don't know the sides," says Betty Riback, San Lorenzo Education Association's bargaining chair and a 26-year teaching veteran in the district. "If we're discussing an issue and I or a union member can see something that's going to be detrimental for the district, even if it's going to be a positive for us, we will point that out--because down the line that will come back to cause us a problem anyway."

The collaborative approach used in San Lorenzo is representative of a negotiation method called interest-based bargaining that a number of districts and other organizations are embracing. "The ingredients of good negotiation don't vary. It's mutual respect for each other, a desire to focus on creating and maintaining communications," says Emi R. Uyehara, a partner in the San Francisco-based law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore who has been representing districts for 20-plus years. Interest-based negotiations also include certain protocols on proposal development.

But IBB isn't just about negotiations. "IBB has become sort of a euphemism for, 'We're trying to get along with each other, respect each other, promote respect for each other, deal with difficult issues in a way that recognizes each other's interests,' " says Lou Manchise, director of mediation services at Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, an independent agency that promotes labor-management peace and cooperation. In the mid-80s, Manchise helped develop the FMCS version of the IBB process, based on Roger Fisher's bestseller Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Penguin).

Giving IBB a Try

The trend toward IBB has had peaks and valleys since the '80s, explains Irma Tyler-Wood, principal of ThoughtBridge, which helps districts and other clients manage negotiation, conflict resolution and change. During economic downturns, organizations tend to think they can't collaborate on negotiations. "My thought is, that's when you really need to be creative," she says. IBB can help in reaching innovative solutions.

In California, where funding levels are highly dependent on the state each year, districts apply interest-based thinking for another bottom-line reason, Uyehara says. "Depending on the relationship between the district and the union, there's a common understanding that rather than looking at each other to find the money, really Sacramento controls the budget." She estimates that the approach, if not the actual formal process that goes along with IBB, is used more than half of the time.

Ohio, a collective bargaining state, has experienced an increase in districts and local education associations wanting to use the IBB approach over the past eight years, according to Marla Bell, an Ohio Education Association labor relations consultant. She and her peers determine whether the relationship between the groups in a district is conducive to IBB.

Yet finances in Ohio, Bell says, "may force us back into a traditional approach" of bargaining as districts struggle to keep salaries competitive. Distributive issues like this, Manchise explains, can be more difficult to resolve with interest-based bargaining because one side is forced to give something to the other side. Integrative issues, meanwhile, involve resolutions that integrate both parties' interests, making IBB an easier fit.

Education has a leg up over other industries in using the interest-based approach successfully, experts agree. "We have a common ground, and that is educating students," Bell says. Start with the same goal and the perspectives of those with various system roles are easier to understand.

IBB is also a perfect fit for districts because it involves both sides educating each other, Uyehara points out. For instance, district leaders can work with the union to explain how and why certain budget items can't be moved around or reduced.

And then there's the reality that schools by nature are a hotbed of conflict. From dysfunctional boards to parent upsets, there are lots of potential issues to resolve, Tyler-Wood notes. It's not surprising, then, that stressed educators are seeking alternative ways to work out internal strife.In the search for solutions to outside pressures on districts, IBB can help.

Voices Heard

One of the most obvious differences between traditional and interest-based bargaining makes IBB the logical choice for many. In a traditional session, where the union representatives are on one side of the table and management sit opposite, there may as well be just two people in the room.

Each side's lead negotiator communicates the position, typically with a completed proposal. "It's like a contest between spokespeople, and sometimes that gets a little bit goofy," says Kenneth Joseph, a union representative for the Ohio Federation of Teachers who currently works with 11 different locals. Most discussion happens when the two groups break for caucus. And by the time agreements are reached, everyone feels like a negotiation loser.

"We would walk out of there feeling miserable. ... Our colleagues had become our adversaries," remembers Superintendent Kathleen Klink, who has been with Lakota Local Schools in Liberty Township, Ohio, since 1971.

The district first explored IBB in the years leading up to her 1994 appointment to the top job. They've been using it ever since. "Now we ... think about the district from the bigger picture point of view. We deal with what interests us in order to be a better district," she says. "With IBB it is about listening and it is about collaboration and it is about trust, because trust becomes the foundation for the whole process."

To Bell of the OEA, using interest-based bargaining means not wasting hours coming up with proposals that don't take into account information only the other side has. "It's kind of like talking into a mirror," she says of the traditional process.

Take the issue of professional development time. A traditional proposal might be: "No teacher is required to take any professional development activity beyond the work day," Bell explains. Sounds good on paper, but it doesn't exactly jive with today's expectations for schools.

"The administrators, initially seeing that, would have said, 'For God sakes we're just meeting student needs! No! Reject!' Then we would have said, 'We want our hourly rate of pay,'" Bell says. The debate would have continued until the participants "ended up with a compromise that nobody liked, or we would have done nothing and the problem would have continued."

IBB conversations are about maximizing resources to solve issues. In contrast, "positional bargaining between the union and the district doesn't provide enough room to create and implement the things that are necessary for reform in education," asserts Andre Pettigrew, assistant superintendent of administrative services for Denver Public Schools. "Traditional bargaining doesn't provide a big enough tent, a big enough forum."

For all of these reasons, IBB looks awfully attractive to those frustrated by an adversarial status quo. Yet the trust needed to make it work doesn't arrive in an overnight package tied with a bow--and it can't be taken for granted.

"We continue to build on the idea that you can have a supportive, respectful, professional relationship [between the district and union]. It's a relationship and you kind of have to tend it," says William Korach, superintendent of Lake Oswego (Ore.) School District, which uses an interest-based approach but hasn't focused on its official tenets. "You have your own interests and are your own entity. It's very much like a marriage. You need to support each other."

We Are Gathered Here Today ...

Getting IBB buy-in from both parties--a pre-requisite for using the process--requires something like a marriage proposal. But carefully chosen words are everything.

"If the union suggests it, management is suspicious. If management suggests, the union is suspicious," says Tyler-Wood of ThoughtBridge. "We had one board so excited and then when the union was enthusiastic, they started having second thoughts!"

"It involves an overture on the part of the district--or it could be on the part of the union as well--to look at IBB," says Stan Rose, chief personnel officer of Alameda (Calif.) Unified School District. Since Rose came on board four years ago, administrators have been interested in the approach. Yet the timing hasn't been right. "Right before I got here, [teachers] came within hours of a strike and relations went south," he says.

Win-win solutions may result from IBB, Rose says, but for now only the classified union has agreed to try it. The certificated union, which Rose says probably worries about change during a time of declining financial resources, has opted against the approach.

New leadership can be an impetus for taking that plunge. In Denver, where a 1994 teachers' strike had cemented contentious management-union relations, the union decided to try IBB after Jerry Wartgow was hired to lead the district in 2001. There was a new president, and Wartgow saw it as "kind of a honeymoon thing. We wanted to start off with positive relations." Pettigrew, who was Wartgow's first hire, adds, "I guess they were willing to give the new kids on the block a chance."

Such was the case in Providence, too. When Melody Johnson arrived in the district as deputy superintendent in 2000, she knew communication and cooperation were at a low level.

"The first thing she did was to establish a relationship with the union. It was non-existent prior," says president Steven F. Smith. IBB had been suggested by management, "but there just wasn't a willingness" because the suggestion had come before the trust.

A year after Johnson's arrival, when the teacher's contract was up for renewal, the comfort level to pursue IBB was there. When she became superintendent in 2002, it was time. "It doesn't matter how smart you are, how much you know, how skilled you are. It's not going to go anywhere if you don't have a relationship with those who will work with you," she says.

Her initial order of business: Call Smith. "We'd both been at the table during previous contract negotiations," characterized by months of talks where the tough issues weren't even touched until the end, Johnson says. "[The process] just didn't make sense anymore for the kind of relationship we had developed. We were talking three, four, five times a day," Johnson says. "To go back to the table and ... have chief negotiators do all the talking--it was just a model that didn't fit our needs."

In Our Best Interest?

In determining if IBB is a district's missing puzzle piece, proponents must take into account historical and present trust levels. "I certainly have seen association folks who have said, 'No, we're supposed to be adversarial, and this is a way to snooker us into thinking we're on equal ground and they're just going to take advantage of us,' " Bell says. "I like to coin it: We're going to get together and sing Kum Ba Ya."

Understanding that one side may be adverse to change for the sake of comfort is important, too. And with IBB, where major issues get priority, some of the smaller yet also important issues may keep getting set aside, Bell adds.

IBB also can't be heralded as "the" solution. "If both parties are at real loggerheads with each other ... [you can't] jump into this and say, 'It's going to work,' " says Barbara Hammel, superintendent of Deer Park Community Schools in Cincinnati.

When the time is right for an interest-based approach, selling the idea to other constituents can be an issue. "We try to explain to them prior [to negotiating] that it's a different process," says Joseph, the Ohio union representative. Joy Rapp, superintendent of Independent School District No. 1 in Lewiston, Idaho, adds that "the idea of an adversarial, we beat-em-up-and-got-everything" approach is sometimes viewed as more effective by those not involved in the process. It's an issue she tries to address as part of a six-member state steering committee promoting IBB.

Time and cost are other potential barriers. Denver got support for IBB training from a state-level foundation. Trained facilitators may be another cost.

The time for training is a must, too. "The larger the district, [the easier it generally is] to skim off 10 people to receive the training," says Manchise of FMCS, which offers its services for free. "For a smaller district with 120 teachers, it becomes much more difficult."

Those with IBB experiences don't take the time factor lightly. "People can not enter into this thinking they're going to rush through it. You're really taking time to listen and try to understand and get at people's true needs as opposed to people putting forth solutions and then battling what solution is best," says Hammel.

But IBB can be viewed as a timesaver, too, because bargaining sessions have meaning. "If you value your time and value the ability to collaborate, this is for you," Klink says.

Learning the Golden Rules

For some people, like Johnson and Smith in Providence, the interest-based approach comes naturally. "We didn't go to training for IBB," Johnson says, "but we did go through some professional development together on behalf of the system." During three days at a national urban education conference, they and their teams had lots of time to talk about district issues. Back home, where the two chief negotiators were comfortable with the process, the transition to IBB went smoothly.

That outcome is considered unique. In Tyler-Wood's experience, even the training itself requires pre-work. "We do diagnostic interviews with a cross-section of key people," she explains. Questions about goals, challenges, barriers, history and relationships help ThoughtBridge consultants "find out where the bodies are buried, where the landmines are. Then we build into the training an opportunity ... to talk about some of these landmines and barriers."

For one district she has worked with, that took two full days. "If you have so many elephants nobody has touched--all this garbage from the past--you'll never be able to negotiate successfully until you deal with it," Tyler-Wood says. Each elephant identified by the teams was named and unpacked, not only by training participants but also by others from the district who were brought in for the big-tent task. By the third day, the teams were working on their own. A week later, a contract agreement was reached.

Over a typical two-day training session through FMCS, Manchise says, "We create an environment of hope." By learning specific processes, the parties begin building their commitment to making IBB work.

Hammel, who first learned the IBB approach through FMCS while in her former district, says the training exercises set the framework for working together. "You didn't work as a board team and an association team. In the role-plays and case studies, you were mixed. You may be taking the perspective of an employee even though in real life you were the employer," she explains.

That practice has been helpful to Hammel with one of the trickiest parts of the IBB process--divorcing yourself from the role you see yourself playing in the district. "If I have an idea, knowing I'm the superintendent [and that] it may not be a viable option based on economics, I've been a little hesitant [to say it] because there are some people ... who will believe it's a true option that can happen, as opposed to being part of the brainstorming," she says.

Joseph tells people, "Let us all leave our titles at the door. ... We're all here equally," he notes. "It does away with the power issue."

Participants can also learn what Tyler-Wood calls the intent vs. impact tool. "Often a district will do something with very good intent, such as [to help] students, but the impact is pretty lousy to teachers or the union," she says. "We [teach] them that both intent and impact are equally important. You have to talk about and acknowledge both, and from there you can solve the problem."

After training, the opt-out possibility is still there for either party. Manchise says, "You have to assess it as you're going through it."

A Fair Shake

If all systems are go, then let the bargaining begin. Unlike in traditional negotiations, parties don't come with ready-made solutions.

"You really start with interests of the parties," Joseph explains. Instead of the union reps coming in with a question like "How can we get a 10 percent increase?", they might ask, "In what ways can we get a fair and equitable increase, considering the financial conditions of the district?".

Then the parties develop options together. "We kill a lot of trees with flipchart paper," Joseph says.

"You're trying to use the power of the group to come up with as many ideas as possible in a short period of time," Hammel adds.

But brainstorming's number one rule--don't evaluate ideas as they're conceived--is the real challenge. "Everybody violates that," Joseph says.

Once the process has generated lots of options, participants test them for feasibility and acceptability and see if the better ones could be combined to create an ideal solution.

Compensation often becomes the biggest stumbling block and may well be saved for the middle of the negotiations, when the group has already resolved some other issues, Manchise says. Hammel has found that these moments are when "you see the group moving in a more traditional mode [with] more clearly defined positions between the association and board."

San Lorenzo, for one, has proven that IBB and compensation can mix--even over the last few years when the district had to cut nearly $7 million from the budget. "When you don't have money ... that's the true test of whether you've got a relationship," says Superintendent Glassberg. "There's trust," Riback explains. "I trust that the district is being up front with me, and they trust us."

That trust was crucial in developing a unique two-year compensation agreement. For the first year, Glassberg says, "There was money for us to commit to." But the union had to take a leap of faith about raises to come for the current school year, since the agreement involved tying the formula for an increase to the state cost of living allowance. "It's about putting as much on the table as we possibly can," he explains.

Uyehara points out that IBB doesn't mean caving in to the other party's interests. "Part of the strength of a good district is compromising where it makes sense to compromise."

It also often means feeling great about the solution at the end of the day. ThoughtBridge clients have said, "We walked in with different answers and we left with one answer that was better than one we could have thought of on our own," Tyler-Wood says.

For Lakota in Ohio, IBB has helped in developing agreements on flextime, hiring retired teachers and teacher transfers that would run counter to a typical union position, says David Greenburg, director of employee relations.

Teacher transfers also came up in Lewiston, Idaho. Rapp says IBB helped greatly in creating a new system, where interested teachers can put their name into a reassignment pool. "In our elementaries we have about 125 teachers, and when we make our transfers, we need to do all that in one day," Rapp explains. The district was hardly in a position to announce an opening, find out who wants it, fill it and then move on to fill the next one. The policy now meets the needs of the district while taking teacher interests into account.

Sudden Impact

At its best, interest-based bargaining moves a district forward so significantly that everyday life is transformed. Providence experienced a change of that magnitude during its 2004-07 teacher contract negotiations.

"When I was visiting schools a number of teachers expressed displeasure with professional development as it was," says Smith. "They felt they had no input, and it didn't apply to what they were doing in the classroom." Four professional development days were built into the school year, with the district controlling both the dates and content.

In discussing the situation, Johnson says, "The main thing we both recognized was that student achievement has to improve." The central driver: NCLB requirements and "knowing the achievement in Providence was nowhere near where any of us wanted it to be." So program change committees, on professional development, site-based management and teacher evaluation, to name a few, were put in place as part of the bargaining process.

The professional development committee devised a plan that'll go a long way toward supporting Providence teachers in efforts to raise student achievement. Now teachers manage 50 percent of their development time, getting their daily rate for it. Remaining time is managed by a joint labor-management committee. Moreover, some American Federation of Teachers courses are incorporated into the program; these courses share a joint umbrella with district offerings.

"Steve has really worked on changing the culture of the union and moving it from a traditional service level union to a professional model," says Johnson, who is moving on from Providence this summer to lead Fort Worth (Texas) Independent School District. "That the contract passed almost 3:1 speaks to how teachers are responding to that."

In Denver, recent contract negotiations included an even more touchy subject than teacher time. When the board and union agreed to replace traditional salary schedules with a whole new system including rewards for student success, a corner had been turned.

Superintendent Wartgow credits the IBB process. "We had a lot of common ground. We all wanted to approve higher salaries for teachers. But we had to prove to the public that there was accountability," he says. Pettigrew adds, "We broke the mold, [saying to teachers,] we're going to pay you more, but we'll pay you differently."

The Broad Foundation is funding some of the program, but the public will have final approval of the system, called ProComp. Later this year, it will come to a vote, with about $25 million in annual property taxes needed to fully fund the agreement, a separate piece within the overall contract.

Outcomes aside, Pettigrew sees the active engagement of so many groups--from teachers and various level administrators to community and foundation members--in ProComp's development as a breakthrough. "That legacy, win or lose, shows me that school districts can work well and do work best when there's a broad range of participation," he says.

Beyond the Table

Besides ProComp, Denver's negotiating teams released a standards for behavior document defining new expectations for talking about issues and focusing on outcomes at the school level. For the first time, the management and unions teams presented jointly when they introduced the standards to principals and school union reps.

While Pettigrew says execution of this interest-based approach has been spotty, he hopes to see an increase in respect for the views of all parties when there are differences of opinion.

It's something Hammel has witnessed. "Once team members are trained, [IBB] can be used across all settings. ... It's a skill that's valuable beyond negotiations." A few years ago in Deer Park, for instance, an administrator used the tool to facilitate a dispute between junior and senior high school students about prom planning.

Lake Oswego's Korach also views the approach as a problem-solving tool, whether it's used in negotiations or at a monthly meeting of district and union leaders. Because of those meetings, he says, there aren't nearly as many issues when it's time for bargaining.

Wading the waters of conflict will always be difficult. But Pettigrew sees building and sustaining positive relationships as crucial for education reform. A focus on the broad horizon helps. "We will continue to squabble annually over, you name it--compensation, working conditions. The good news is we do know how to solve those things," he says.

The "how" leads back to interest-based bargaining. Pettigrew advises, "Try it because it can be a catalyst for creative thinking. Try it because it will demonstrate to your community a willingness to do things differently on their behalf. Try it because it also brings the community in the discussion around public education."

Melissa Ezarik is features editor.