Saturday, September 28, 2013

Collective Bargaining under the Microscope in Minnesota

In the last several months, the education community, especially in the Twin Cities, has begun to talk about transparency in the collective bargaining process.  The footprints of this discussion may be found in the twin cities media in many places:
  • Beth Hawkins recent article in MinnPost:  "Samuels, coalition want the public at teacher contract talks"
  • Kim McGuire's Blog in the Minneapolis Tribune:   Minority leaders call for Minneapolis teachers union to reopen contract talks to the public  
  • Lynell Mickelson's Blog in MinnPost:  "MFT closes the doors again, making it seem both arrogant and out of touch"
  • A public letter from Superintendent Johnson of Minneapolis rebuking the teachers union for seeking a mediator to conduct closed negotiations: " I strongly disagree with MFT’s decision to shut the public out of these talks. 
  • An opinion column in the Minneapolis Tribune:  "Minneapolis superintendent needs your support in contract talks to enact the reforms that schools need."
  • An article in the Tribune reporting the walkout of teachers from the bargaining table in St. Paul:  "St. Paul schools end teacher negotiations"
  • Regular posts reporting on the course and content of negotiations on, Put Kids First, an  organization of progressives who became frustrated by their inability to influence the strategic direction of the Minneapolis public schools, because often their  proposals for reform were rejected as a violation of the collective bargaining agreement.   Put Kids First frames the issue this way:   "Do our public schools exist first and foremost to provide kids with the best possible education with public dollars? Or to first provide jobs to adults, regardless of their performance or what students need?"
The recent publicity arises from the contention of reformers that table negotiations between the teachers union and district management should take place in the open, with observers monitoring the progress of those negotiations and reporting back to the public.   This contention, in turn, arises from a lack of trust that school board and school leadership  in many school districts are putting kids first in negotiations.  Every two years, reformers see management and labor disappear into some room and months later return with a collective bargaining agreement that allegedly puts the district in a straightjacket, preventing necessary reforms.   And, at times it appears that district budgets are set, effectively, by labor agreements that appropriate all new resources, and even more than new resources, to compensation agreements, forcing crippling layoffs and eviscerating the district's ability to purchase adequate textbooks, forcing the closing of schools, or increasing class size.

In a DFL-dominated political environment, as exists in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there is as well a perception that the two big-district school boards can't perform their trustee function as advocates for management, because their election depends primarily on party endorsements, and those endorsements depend in turn on labor union support.  And so, it seems often that the two parties who are going into the back room to make a deal are actually on the same side.   As a parent, I often thought of it this way:  who is in that room bargaining for the kids?    

Groups like Put Kids First are raising an extremely important issue:   the public schools are a public trust.  Their governance is a matter of the highest public importance.   The allocation of scarce resources among compensation, ongoing operational costs, and  school improvement is a matter that ought to be accomplished in public view.  A school board should not be able to make an agreement that forces a reduction in teaching force (thus raising class size) in the dark.   Too often in Minnesota, labor and management make a deal, the effect of which is to force undesirable or even crippling cuts, but the announcement of that agreement nowhere explains the consequences.    Indeed, many school districts intentionally separate the two -- the cost of the labor agreement and the consequent cuts -- in order to prevent the public from understanding the full import of the agreement that has just been signed.   The attention that organizations like Put Kids First has placed on the relationship between collective bargaining and school improvement has been a high public service.    

At the same time, there is danger that the politics of this issue will cause the discussion to deteriorate into an exacerbation of the perception that teachers are under attack, or that they are being scapegoated entirely for the achievement gap.   How then can we achieve the laudable goal of Students First, that we manage our school districts "first and foremost to provide kids with the best possible education with public dollars" while creating a supportive environment for professional educators?  This a question that we've thought about quite a bit here in St. Cloud, and I decided it might be useful to run a series of posts that explore this issue in detail.   I'm going to suggest the following:
  • That the elective process for school boards must assure that board members are nominated and elected based on their commitment to putting kids first.   Accomplishing that objective will require different solutions in different communities and is especially difficult when the DFL allows labor endorsements to drive candidate selection. 
  • That school boards should adopt and publicly communicate their bargaining objectives so the public can hold the board accountable for achievement of those objectives. 
  • That collective bargaining has a policy component and an operational component.   Collective bargaining at the table is operational, and it should operate within the framework of the board's bargaining principles or interests.  What is said at the table is far less important than whether the negotiators are operating within the framework of publicly announced principles, and whether the agreement is then publicly evaluated against those principles. 
  • That among these interests must be the principle that the board of education will not compromise away the resources needed to deliver quality education.   At a minimum, a board of education should never agree to fund compensation increases by making budgetary cuts.....Compensation increases should come from state appropriation increases, not from program cuts or class size increases.  
  • That in the case of prolonged bargaining, the public is entitled to periodic updates from the board of education reassuring the public that the board of education is maintaining faithful adherence to publicly announced principles. 
  • That school boards need to accept responsibility for the board's position, rather than placing the onus on the superintendent and other executive leadership.   In Minnesota, if a superintendent becomes identified as hostile to labor, it can damage that superintendent's career and destroy his or her relationship with professional educators.  Only if the board of education takes responsibility for the district's position, can a superintended be freed of the fear that putting kids first in bargaining will damage his or her career.
  • That the framework for collective bargaining in Minnesota needs to be improved, so that the law encourages school boards to conduct negotiations in ways that transparently put kids first.   
I'll have more to say about these issue in coming posts.   Throughout, my goal is to support the proposition that collective bargaining in Minnesota needs to be reformed or improved, while always maintaining respect for education professionals.