Last year the administration requested that all seven of the district bargaining units make a salary concession, and "give back" 1% of their scheduled raise. The WTA co-presidents consulted with members of the WTA Executive Board and the presidents of the other bargaining units, and refused to make the requested concession. No vote was held in Representative Council or among the general membership, nor could there have been -- the executive branch had not brought back any negotiated settlement to vote upon. When the dust finally settled on the state budget for the 2010-11 school year, the administration had federal jobs money in hand, and spent it on consultants, while several teachers that were laid off were not recalled to service.
This year the administration again made demands for unilateral concessions from the bargaining units, although only three of them were actually in position to give anything up, since the other 4 units are engaged in full contractual negotiations already. Other than that, the difference was that this year management decided to announce its negotiating position to the entire staff, a particular form of divide-and-conquer strategy that we have not seen in the past 18 years. It didn't work. The WTA leadership team had already been analyzing the issue for months, and had a very clear picture of why the request was unacceptable. At the February 7 meeting of the WTA Executive Board we discussed our strategy for dealing with the administration's impending request and decided that the only way we could negotiate any contractually sealed articles will be during the fall of 2011, when we enter full contractual negotiations. The reasons for this have already been described and shared in recent WTA publications and e-mails. The Executive Board members decided that the WTA president should instead attempt to negotiate an alternative way of saving the district a huge sum of money: a special one-time extension of the retirement incentive to all members old enough to retire under the TRS rules. We estimate that this incentive should save the district at least a million dollars in next year's budget.
The negotiations were successful, and the president brought back a Memorandum of Understanding for approval. Although we had met just the week before, we called an emergency meeting of the WTA Executive Board on February 14, which was held just prior to the regularly scheduled Representative Council meeting. At both meetings we read and discussed the MOU, and both bodies passed the MOU unanimously. During the President's Report in the session of Representative Council, we discussed the administration's request for salary concessions at length. Questions were asked and answered, and opinion ran strongly in favor of the strong stand taken by the Executive branch. No vote was taken in either chamber on the issue of concessions, because there was no MOU to vote upon. The same proper procedures that were followed in the past were followed this year. To make salary concessions at the same time that the administration absolutely refused to discuss contractual tweaks to help us deliver instruction more effectively were not the right answer; instead of a giant loss for all teachers, we instead negotiated a significant win for all parties, at a large net savings for the district. While it is our hope that we can now move forward and help the administration find other overlooked opportunities and new efficiencies in their proposed spending, management is clinging to a 20th century approach.
At the time of this writing, the district has 28 million dollars in its reserve funds. Management can draw from those reserves, it can cut from an expansive menu of voluntary expenses, it can reduce the number of administrators, and it can reduce the number of teachers. In short, management has a lot of options, and at its own discretion will decide whether or not to minimize the impact on students.
On a related note, on February 15 & 16, the US Secretary of Education led a national conference on "Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration." Webster (represented by the WTA president, superintendent, and president of the BOE) was one of 150 school districts from across the nation that participated in this initiative. A central theme was one that would appear counter-intuitive to many: a strong teachers' union is an essential partner in school progress. The twelve model districts, including a charter school network, have all embraced and applied this collaborative concept to enhance student achievement while finding new cost efficiencies.
True "Collaboration" does not mean that management makes demands and labor makes concessions. It means that neither side come to the table with pre-scripted positions, but rather that they work through an interest-based process of collaborative problem solving, using consistent logic. When decisions are made in this way, both parties have ownership and are fully invested. While many districts use this method on a part time basis, the districts modeled at the Denver conference displayed consistent application of the practice, and applied it to a full spectrum of educational issues, not a select few.
Another concept celebrated at the conference is that the primary purpose of unions is not to gain benefits for teachers, but to negotiate the conditions critical to student achievement from the teachers' perspective. While administrations can provide structure and collective data from the top-down, it's teachers who provide essential ground-truth from the bottom-up. Successful solutions require information to flow in both directions. Giving lip-service to "input" is not the same as genuine shared decision-making. The most underused resource in public education is classroom teachers' knowledge of what their students truly need -- and this does not mean chalk and pencils. Teachers are skilled professionals who work closely with their students on a daily basis, and this student-teacher interaction is the most critical element in student success.
No matter how unions may be painted in the press, the great financial struggle in education is not one of teachers demanding ever-increasing funding while management valiantly resists -- the real heart of the problem is that administrations so often spend great sums of money on the wrong things. Our history abounds with purchases and programs predestined to the trash bin, because teachers were excluded from the decision-making process. Teachers must be asked what they need, not told. From there, joint dialogue, and in the end, a decision. To most effectively support their students, teachers require administrative assistance, not bureaucratic barriers. Fully embracing the model of labor-management collaboration can help us to deliver a better education at a lower cost. This requires a new mindset -- collaboration cannot be dictated, it can only be developed in partnership. As we entered budgetary discussions this year, management attempted to continue business as usual -- they demanded concessions and expected us to make them. But it is only through standing up and saying "No" to unreasonable demands that we can get them to join us in a future of genuine, and unlimited collaboration.
At the administration's request, teachers submitted a wide variety of money saving suggestions for their consideration. But when the WTA gathered these suggestions, management originally refused to even listen to them, let alone consider them -- they only wanted to hear ideas that mirrored the concessions they had already demanded. We resisted their unilateral approach, in the hope that they might actually open up to true innovation and collaboration.
Instead, in recent days, management has chosen to violate the Taylor Law by attempting to negotiate directly with union members rather than the duly elected union leadership. Nothing could be a greater betrayal of the principles expounded at the Denver conference, and it gives us great insight into their stubborn mindset.
The WTA is not refusing to negotiate or collaborate. The WTA is refusing to make unilateral concessions of management's choosing. It is management that has drawn a line and refuses to discuss many issues that directly impact student achievement, daily schedules at all three levels as an obvious example. We attempted to get them to make tweaks to the high school schedule to allow teachers to better serve their students, but management rebuffed our requests out of hand, refusing to consider the issues anywhere else but in full contractual negotiations to be held next year. That was their decision, not ours. The WTA would like nothing more than for both sides to embrace the concept of collaboration that we saw modeled at the conference, but management clings to its 20th century vision of "managerial rights" to impose, rather than collaborate. When they are ready to work together, we will be ready, for we have been waiting for a long time.
the WTA Leadership