A dreary cold January evening, a long and protracted school board meeting, six months without a teacher’s contract, and a boardroom filled with frustrated teachers. Does this sound familiar?
The number and figures related to salary in the last offer from the district were not being understood by the members of the teacher’s association. The superintendent decided to share the figures with the school board and the audience to present the realities of the school budget, revenues to expenses. Then he presented what the district had offered the teachers. This could be any district in this same predicament, with both sides wanting to get through the process and proceed with the district’s true mission: a focus on students learning at high levels every day.
In his monthly report to the board, the superintendent provided a bargaining update, as well as a proposed resolution on the agenda for the board to adopt open/public bargaining for the district. The section in the board report noted, “it was not clear how much of the district’s position and latest offer was filtering down to the general membership.” The momentum of bargaining beyond the standard “contract language” had come to a slow grind, and the superintendent wanted to move the process along. The statement was not accusatory but rather an effort to bring the bargaining process into an open and transparent level of communication.
When union leaders gave their regular presentation during the board meeting, they said they had been fully open with membership related to bargaining. They were a little taken aback by the superintendent’s statement in the report. The association would be more than willing to support the resolution for open/public bargaining. The leaders said, “We have nothing to hide and everything to gain by moving to open bargaining.”
The goal of open/public bargaining is transparency that benefits both sides of the table. In a 2018 article from the Washington Policy Center, Erin Shannon writes, “Here’s an idea that would ensure everyone operates from the same set of facts—open collective bargaining negotiations to the public. Open negotiations would allow the public (including the teachers who rely solely on their bargaining team to keep them informed) to witness firsthand what offers are being made (and rejected) and the impact those offers would have on the school’s budget.”
The article referenced a Thurston County Washington Superior Court judge whose order for Tumwater School District teachers to return to work was apparently ignored because there was no consequence to teachers if they failed to follow the order. While at the table, behind closed doors, the 15 percent increase offer to teachers was not deemed “fair and reasonable” by labor leadership. A similar issue of confusion occurred in Washington’s Tacoma School District, where union leadership informed the members that the district’s offer was 7 percent while the district stated that it had offered 12.5 percent.
In another district, a superintendent writes, “During a recent traditional bargaining session, when I asked multiple times if the salary schedule was approved by membership, I was told, ‘this is what our members want.’ A month later, the boardroom was filled with teachers arguing against the salary schedule as it would benefit the bargaining team and not necessarily the membership as a whole. This participation by angered teachers happened after the contract was ratified by membership. Our board chose not to ratify the contract based on such a large outcry. The association’s membership ratified again, and the board didn’t see any choice but to ratify based on the second ratification by membership even though the vote was still only 3-2 by the board.” Open/public bargaining would have preempted this dilemma for both the association and the school board by providing a transparent process that benefits both the association members and the district.
Open/public bargaining does not presume or accuse either side of wrongdoing. Rather, it assumes positive intent that both sides are open, transparent, and honest in effort to deliver a fair and reasonable process of negotiations resulting in a contract that will benefit both the district and employees.
The journey to open/public bargaining
After accepting the position of superintendent, my desire was to work closely with all union leadership and implement the process of interest-based bargaining. The organization Labor Management Partnership describes interest-based bargaining as “a collaborative approach to solving problems that strives to meet the most critical needs of all parties. It also aims to preserve —and improve—workplace relationships and partnership. It’s not about ‘giving in,’ but rather is a process to negotiate differences amicably and reach results that will be lasting and durable.”
I believe both sides of the table desire lasting and durable relationships and agreements. One of my common mantras is, “We agree to agree to what’s in the agreement.” If the district is in violation, we will apologize and correct our action, and if not, then we come to the table to amend our agreement.
Given that I was new to the district and to the community, the teacher’s association was not willing to dive into interest-based bargaining based on my description of the process. They were much more comfortable, as are many local chapters, with traditional bargaining: Both sides of the table stake out their positions, and in typical confrontational dialogue, defend their case.
My concern, based on many decades at the bargaining table and managing as many as nine collective bargaining agreements at one time as a university administrator, was that the traditional method is not transparent. Only those at the table know what really transpires, and either side can be and usually is painted as villainous. State funding for schools is unstable, unpredictable, and usually not enough. But the district’s rationale and strategies are only fully known by the few union leaders who sit at the table. Open/public bargaining opens the books, provides full disclosure, and allows everyone to know what is presented, discussed, explained, offered, and accepted or rejected.
The idea of open/public bargaining was presented to the school board, who agreed that it could move the district in a positive direction to more transparency and clear communication about the bargaining process. The district offered an invitation for both the certificated and classified union leaders to participate, to which they accepted. The board unanimously passed a resolution that the district would exercise open/public bargaining as the means to negotiating collective bargaining agreements. Following the resolution, the next bargaining session announcement and agenda, which included the date, time, and location, were posted on the district website, in each of the building offices, and in the local post offices.
As most can attest, bargaining is not a very exciting process, and it can be long and drawn out. Thus, there were not many people who attended the first few sessions. The public included one or two board members, one or two association members who were not on the bargaining team, and a few community members who attended a couple of sessions only to learn that we don’t yell, call each other names, or get violent. It is quite calm… and boring. The public is not allowed to comment. There is to be no dialogue with or between members of the public. They are not allowed to be in the caucus discussions. Basically, they only observe.
The sessions that did draw large crowds were about salary. During one session, almost 80 percent of the district’s teachers were in attendance. This level of attendance was very helpful for the district, and I think benefited the teachers as well. Anyone interested in how much the union was requesting, how much the district was offering, and the rationale for the amount that was on either side of the table could hear the unfiltered data and conversations.
All teachers in attendance heard all offers. All teachers knew that they were fairly and accurately represented by their leadership. When the offers and counteroffers were posted on the district website, everyone could verify the posting was accurate. Both sides benefited from this open/public process.
Both the district and the union have a vested interest in ensuring that the bargaining process, whether interest-based bargaining or adversarial bargaining, is honest and transparent. They want what is bargained to be sustainable and that there is a sustainable source of funding to support the agreement. Transparency is commonly defined as “easy to perceive or detect.” In open/public bargaining, transparency takes on an expanded definition: “available and easy to perceive by all membership that the bargaining team is in fact, bargaining for all membership and not individual salaries/issues of the team.”
During the open/public bargaining process, these values are realized. It brings all interested members of the district together to discuss ways to solve problems that meet the most critical needs of all parties. The process preserves and improves workplace relationships and partnerships while negotiating differences amicably and reaching results that are lasting and durable.
Curt Guaglianone, a consultant on superintendent/school board relations, is in his fifth year as superintendent of the Mt. Adams School District #209 in White Swan, Washington. He holds the title of dean emeritus of the college of education at California State University, Bakersfield. He has served as a licensed marriage/family therapist, teacher, counselor, principal, professor, university dean, and university provost.