Cooperation is Risky

My Thoughts: This is the 5th or 6th positive newsletter in a row. This is completely out of my experience and perhaps its out of Franks experience too. His prose is extremely wary He writes like a kid walking out on thin ice. There's plenty of spin on this newsletter that I could argue with but its not worth correcting a message that continues to be conciliatory. Carp diem!



The history of the Duluth Public Schools during the past decade was one of continued conflict strife between the school board/administration and the teachers. During this period I believe we demonstrated that we are able to hold our own against hostile school boards and superintendents. We went toe to toe in school 
board meetings and in the media. We won more often than we lost. We worked to change the school board through the election process.  We proved that we can do battle, if we have to.  We also learned that fighting has a cost. It diverts time and resources from what we really need to be doing. I believe that both groups have come to realize that we need to develop new relationships, new methods, new trust and new purpose.

Departure from what is known is not without peril and risk. During the last set of negotiations we made a conscious decision to release as little information as possible to the media. We felt that negotiating through the press was counterproductive. Had the approach not worked and a strike had been necessary, we would have had to work fast to inform the public and win support. After the settlement the superintendent and I decided to issue a joint message. A good idea, but not without risk. The superintendent could be criticized for "selling out to the union" and I for "being too close to the administration." I think that the results were worth the risk. It seems that there is a different feeling in the district today than there existed two or three years ago.

Another decision, not without risk, was made to move some of the items from the negotiation table to committees which would work during the course of the contract to deal with issues or develop actual contract language to be effective with the next contract. The advantage is that issues can be dealt with in a less adversarial context. The risk is that a committee may not be successful and the issue may be more difficult to deal with later. I believe that an opportunity to work together in a problem solving fashion is important. If it doesn't work, we will try something else.

Several committees are already hard at work. The committee with perhaps the most at stake is the committee working on severance issues. This group has the daunting task of developing language to deal with the looming problem of constructive receipt and providing new opportunities to actually improve severance through 403b accounts and district matches. At the same time they need to be sure that there is no loss to those close to retirement. They need to be sure it's legal, it's better, and it is acceptable to both parties. Fortunately, we have some excellent people serving on the committee. They have had
three meetings to date. I am not an official member of the committee, but have sat in on
portions of their meetings. It is great to see what can happen when we join with the District to approach issues on a problem-solving basis. Even if no resolution is reached prior to negotiations, the group will have accomplished a lot due to the research they will have done.

Other joint D.F.T. /District problem-solving committees are attacking issues which have continued to plague both parties. These include the Special Education Caseloads/Assignment Committee, Specialists Assignment/Workload Committee and a group working to disburse the money on the Co-curricular Schedule.

The Superintendent and I have discussed returning to the labor-management process as outlined in the contract. This should not be a problem as there is language in place indicating the willingness of both parties to participate. The difficulty is that a good deal of baggage remains from our last attempts to make the process work. During the last year of its existence the District Steering Committee accomplished little. Much has changed since then, however and I believe that this is the time to try again. We need to have a way of dealing with issues which are difficult to resolve in negotiations and to share information. Thus, I would like to make Labor-Management a priority.

Several of us have spoken with Finance Director Greg Hein about establishing a budget committee which would include teachers. The idea would be to give teacher representatives a chance to become involved in the budgeting process, learn about finances, share information and so on. The responsibility for the budget adoption would still rest with the superintendent and school board, but a lot more people would have an idea of the status of revenues and expenditures.

We have an opportunity to address our concerns, issues and needs in a fashion different from what we have often used in the past. The risk is that what we are trying to do will not work and everyone involved will be frustrated and bitter, which will in turn lead to antagonism and another round of hostility. If we look only at what we feel to be risks, we may miss a chance to address concerns in a way which will improve the image of the district and the union.