The optimal strategy for any given school board across the state of Michigan is beyond the scope of this primer. Every situation is different, and one of the real benefits of local control is the ability of school boards to take advantage of this fact. However, there are some common elements that should be addressed in any board strategy.
Sandra Feeley Myrand: "The actual process of negotiating a contract is the peak of the pyramid. There is an entire base that has to be in place before bargaining. A good working relationship, trust, honesty, clear, mutual focus on the vision, facts and figures and information are essential for productive negotiations. If these elements aren’t in place as the team climbs the mountain, reaching the peak will only create a condition of instability, which will cause the negotiator to fall off or impale him- or herself. "
Be aware of the views and positions of the union that represents the school district’s employees. Look to the materials generated by the union on the Internet, in print, or elsewhere. Most significant positions will not be kept hidden. The education unions work in a coordinated fashion to achieve their statewide goals. Identifying these goals early in the process will give a school board extra time to determine the best approach to take.
Prepare in detail. The Michigan Association of School Boards states well the importance of careful preparation and follow-through in the collective bargaining process:
"[P]oor preparation weakens one’s position during face-to-face negotiations. ... Errors at the bargaining table and during impasse decrease the likelihood of settlement on terms acceptable to the school board, and increase the probability of labor unrest; … mistakes, ambiguities and omissions in negotiated contract language make the period of contract administration much more difficult; … [and,] finally, improper grievance handling and arbitration losses weaken the board’s position when entering the next round of negotiations."
Donald Wheaton: "In order to be effective, and in order to be prepared for your meetings and to make informed decisions, you not only have to read what the administration is giving you, but you also must keep up with the news reports. You must stay abreast of what the state board of education, the president, the governor, the Legislature, the business community and the various unions are doing.
"You have to set your budget by July 1, but the state doesn’t tell you how much it’s going to give you until somewhere around October. So you must try to be a good prognosticator. In setting your budget, do you count on every dollar the state has promised to provide, or do you budget more conservatively?"
Henry Saad: "Like with most things in life, you want the macro view and micro view. As a negotiator, it would seem to me that the objective of the various members of the school board is to obtain as much information as they can but not have it be so unwieldy as to become overwhelming. … You want to see on the basic grids what the public and private sector are paying for various classifications — for example, like secretaries and engineers, as opposed to teachers. … [T]he school board usually has a chief negotiator — oftentimes an attorney, sometimes not — who will, along with the superintendent and human resource staff, provide that information, so they have that relevant historical data about other comparables both within [the district] and in other districts: What [is] the financial situation? … What does a 1 percent increase cost? What does a step increase cost? How does that equate to actual dollars and cents? You have to have accurate information. The overall objective is, of course, again ... what is in the best interest of the school district.
"There are competing and countervailing considerations in a lot of these things. … You will want to look at the long-range history, and you want to take a look at where [you have] been in the last 10, 15, 20 years. ... You look at how much you spend per pupil; how much you are spending on administrative costs; how much on teacher costs; how much on materials; and how much it costs per pupil to teach various areas. Sometimes you can break that down between subjects. ... You do need to take a long-term view, and then you ask, What is the number of teachers we have? What is the number of administrators? Support staff? What’s the ratio between that and the number of students? Are we gaining or losing students? Is this a growing district? What is our state funding? These are all complicated questions, but typically the superintendent is the one who can bring all of that data to the table — [the superintendent] or his or her HR staff."
Sandra Feeley Myrand: "Lakeview has used a problem-solving approach to labor relations. Issues are not allowed to stack up and wait for bargaining. When a problem [was] encountered, we would discuss the issue and solve it before negotiations, often writing a letter of agreement that memorialized our compromise. I think having labor relations done this way is the ideal. Employee issues are addressed immediately, and if the issues impacts students, fewer students are negatively affected."
In the private sector, human resource managers will provide boards and executives with detailed accounts of the full cost of employment. This would include the cost of all benefits, not just the major items, such as salary and health benefits. Paid days off — including sick days, bereavement, personal days and vacation days — all have an associated cost. Moreover, salary is not the only direct compensation cost; others might include longevity pay and certification bonuses. There is also a dollar value to uniforms provided to maintenance workers or custodians. School board members should expect similar details to be presented to them so that they can fully understand their choices and make informed decisions. Unfortunately, far too many boards find themselves working only from aggregated values of salaries with a proposed percentage increase.
John Millerwise: "When an issue is complex, one must be willing to say, ‘I don’t get it yet.’ Then what can happen is that perhaps two or three others will agree after the meeting, basically saying; ‘Boy, I didn’t understand either. I’m glad you asked that.’ It’s difficult when board members are uncomfortable admitting they don’t understand an issue during public meetings, whether they are too proud or just too embarrassed to ask for clarification. One has to be willing to walk in with the gloves down and say, ‘I don’t know, tell me, help me understand, I need more information.’ Unfortunately, I know there were many, many times that people voted having no clue as to what they were voting on. I’ve got to believe that is not uncommon among school boards."
Develop a unified and coherent board strategy. As best they can, school boards should reach uniform conclusions as to what issues are critical and what the board’s positions will be on those issues. If a board fails to develop a consensus, it is likely to be divided and conquered by the union in the press or at the negotiating table. Where conclusions cannot be reached, it is important to arrive at internal agreements regarding the necessity of board members in the minority refraining from publicly undermining the board during negotiations. Likewise, it is important for an individual school board member not to act as an independent broker with the education unions on contentious issues. Finally — though it should go without saying — it is important that the majority of the board not ram its position down the minority’s throat.
In developing a strategy, a school board will often have a few early meetings to set parameters and then leave a negotiator or a team to reach a final agreement. Accordingly, it is important to have these parameters set forth in writing for the negotiator(s), so that there can be no confusion or misunderstandings.
Parameters are supposed to provide clear guidelines for negotiations, not serve as a straitjacket. However, a school board can find itself in a difficult position if a negotiator oversteps the boundaries set by the board, either by accident or intentionally. In such situations board members must choose between an agreement they didn’t really want — and forever keep quiet about it — or damage the credibility of the negotiators by directing them to reopen negotiations, an undesirable approach in a process that is often built step by step.
Lynn Parrish: "[School board members] need to set their parameters in a very reasoned way. They need to know what they’re dealing with from the financial point of view. They should have a plan (we have a 15-year plan). They should set goals and objectives for where their education is headed. They should have priorities. What in the program will we not sacrifice? How far will we go? What can we afford? Where will we draw the line? So I think they have a lot of homework that they need to do before they ever send a bargaining team in to represent them. And I think the boards that are best-prepared to bargain are the boards that know where they are, where their district is and where they want their district to be."
Plan school board communications. It is important for a school board to have in place a clear strategy of communicating board positions to the media and, consequently, the public. In that regard, the board needs to speak with one voice in delivering its message to the general public. Accordingly, it is usually necessary to designate a spokesperson through which the board addresses the media and the public.
Keep in mind that appropriate internal communication can be just as important as external communication, since good internal communications eliminate surprises. The negotiators should provide regular summary reports to the school board on the results of negotiating sessions and on future strategies. It is important to see the relationship between the school board and those charged with the actual negotiations as a partnership. Under such a view, misunderstandings on the parameters presented to the negotiators, especially if the parameters are vague, can be avoided. To avoid micromanaging, it is a wise practice to have school board members respond to the updates only if they notice a deviation from the parameters and otherwise reserve their comments for discussion in closed session.
James Gillette: "There needs to be a designated spokesperson for the district. Individual board members should not be speaking to the media or the public. The message needs to be clear, succinct, to the point; and [it] should not say things that can be used in an unfair labor practice. Usually this person or persons should be limited to the superintendent, board president, another designated board member or chief bargainer for the board."
Never underestimate the power of the unions. Labor unions are multimillion dollar operations with the overreaching goal of advancing the interests of their members. While unions may, at some level, care about the education of children, board members should remind themselves that the union representatives engaged in negotiating are paid professionals. They understand both the law and the issues and often boast extensive experience in collective bargaining. As discussed above, unless a board member or administrator has similar expertise, the board should consider hiring a professional negotiator if finances permit. Remember, the Michigan Education Association employs over 100 Uniserv Directors.
Moreover, MEA affiliates have access to the expertise of the National Education Association, a massive organization of 2.8 million members that maintains, according to Hess and West: "a network of 1,650 full-time and 200 part-time employees who provide local affiliates guidance on matters including negotiations and grievance resolution. The NEA touts the UniServ program as ‘a vast cadre of human resources,’ on which it spent approximately $50 million in 2001. ..." It is for this reason that many school boards, as discussed previously, choose to hire a professional negotiator.
Connie Gillette: "It’s very important as you go into the collective bargaining process that board members set reasonable expectations and parameters for the bargaining team as they prepare to go into bargaining. They must be aware of sacred issues that will cause difficulty (i.e., insurance). They must have all the facts; accurate financial information; ‘what-if’ scenarios with different settlement options and how they impact the budget; and preparation for what roadblocks may come up. It is critical that the bargaining team [have] a clear understanding of the board’s parameters and where the board has flexibility. The worst thing that can happen for the bargaining team — and particularly the chief spokesperson, is to be bargaining what the board has directed and then have the board weaken and change directions. It takes away the credibility of the bargaining team and gives the union clues about how to get their way in the future.
"Not all districts feel this is the right approach, but we felt it was beneficial for us: Because we knew the general membership wasn’t getting accurate facts about what the board was proposing, we gave a report on the position of both bargaining teams at the monthly board meeting via PowerPoint. We could only report what had been proposed after both sides had been given ample opportunity to discuss and respond at the bargaining table. The union did not like this, as it is easier to maintain member support if the union controls the information being disseminated."
Jeff Steinport: "Board members need to follow up. So many times we were given financial estimates, and we never got follow-up on whether they actually saved or cost the projected amount of money. I have gotten wind of things that we agreed to when I was on the board that were completely off, and board members have no idea because they’re new; they don’t have a history of it. It’s a continuous bureaucratic process. Boards need to be more active in demanding accountability of numbers.
"We were told basically we couldn’t talk about bargaining while we were doing it and any discussion or refutation of union numbers in public would be considered an unfair labor practice. We were gagged during the entire process. Even after the process was accomplished, we were strongly encouraged, even if we disagreed with the results, to vote in favor of the contract just to present a united front. So there was essentially no public debate whatsoever on union contracts, and I think that’s wrong."