As a former East County educator, I struggled watching the rancor between districts and unions in Reynolds, Parkrose, and Gresham-Barlow this past spring during teacher contract negotiations. Having friends on both sides, it was challenging to see each district struggle to balance competing demands. Hopefully, in all three cases, the beginning of this year will afford enough respite to focus attention on academic tasks and rebuilding frayed relationships.
Yet, I think Oregon districts are going to continue to see flare-ups when it comes to teacher contract negotiations, partly because of the still stagnant economy, but also because of several other factors:
a) Short period of time between contract negotiations: Since negotiating the contract is no one’s day job, the sides often protract the discussions long past the expiration of the previous contract. With most districts operating under a three-year scheme, what this does in effect is stagger contract negotiations right on top of the other. There is scant time for any hostility to cool or for teacher-district relationships to be aided by collaborative ventures. I have been prompted, having seen this scenario played out a few times, to wonder why the state and districts don’t work to change contract lengths (recognizing this is not a small task) to avoid this scenario.
b) The use of “playbooks”: This past summer, when a superintendent and union president (separately) visited my classes, they each decried the other’s use of a “playbook” when bargaining. I can certainly understand the desire for having an operative strategy when starting negotiations, but in East County, bargaining was so guided by playbooks that months would pass with no movement by either side to move talks forward. Yet, in the end, the various districts sorted out their issues through thoughtful compromise. Arguably, any hostility could have been avoided had they arrived at that stage far earlier by not being led by a “general” strategy.
c) Ideological rhetoric: In almost every case, it seemed like issues not really part of the disputes were popping up and the teacher contract negotiations were becoming proxy fights. I do not believe that school board members should be working to “smash” unions, as that commentary only serves to aggravate tension and belies a purpose not designed to maximize academic results (but win a partisan battle). Likewise, for all my empathy for teachers, I think sometimes their PR strategy leaves a lot to be desired. Many of the struggling community members I spoke to simply didn’t understand how a job that provides a living wage and (excellent) benefits would have reason to strike.
Yet, even with these, the major issue in Oregon is that:
d) The state’s funding structure almost invites this: Ken Bucchi, a human resources director in the Oregon Trail School District, wrote one of the more thoughtful Op-Eds in The Oregonian last year about what’s sustaining the problem and what could be done to fix it. While I think that Mr. Bucchi’s proposal would need to be hashed out more than his Op-Ed space would allow, I would really like to see the state pursue ideas like Bucchi’s (it would have been great to see this done last year). Otherwise, we will continue to see these labor conflagrations that are ultimately damaging to our communities and the academic future of our students.