Public Teacher Contract Negotiations

Our Board is interested in hearing the experiences of anyone who has conducted teacher contract negotiations in public. We are trying to respond to community requests that we negotiate in public for our next contract. In the past, we have assigned a team of board members the task of negotiating with teachers in closed sessions. The team reported back to the board a general statement on progress (or lack thereof) which the board has communicated to the public during regular board meetings and in a monthly newsletter. Board discussions of negotiating positions/strategies have been held in executive session. A few community members want us to conduct our next round of negotiations in public. We would appreciate hearing about the experience of other boards in conducting open negotiations and/or responding to community requests to do so. What do these public meetings look like? What have been the pros and cons of such an approach? Thanks for sharing your views on this!

  1. I have been involved with the negotiating process, in many different formats. Strategy and deliberations are discussed in caucuses which are not public. During one negotiation we negotiated in executive session and our town members felt they didn’t know what was going on; currently we are negotiating in public and have only had the public there once. It is a delicate situation either way and should be approached with careful thought.

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  2. I think if it’s public money it needs to be transparent. Most of the teachers want these meetings behind doors which I believe its a union way of doing business. This is a union with 5 grade schools and a high school of about 1000 kids. I have heard horror stories from the past of late nights, as this is my first negotiations. We have hired a spokesperson (attorney) with whom guides us through the process to achieve the goals we set. He is also the speaker at the table. I must say that it is very hard to let someone else speak for me. When we started the negotiations we wanted it to be as public as was allowed, so that the public was aware of the progress being made. Having it in the public view can also help to speeds things up.

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  3. I have been involved as school business manager on a number of negotiation teams.
    I also have informed and developed my personal philosophy and social values around negotiations over many years.

    I visited the VSBA website and studied the range of responses to the question about public negotiations.

    With that background, I lean strongly towards negotiations in public. However, there are many concerns that would need to be addressed before I would want to act on that inclination.

    The first concern is to consider how the board should deal with community pressure. Unfortunately, the squeaky wheel too often gets the grease; the board can be distracted by the loud demands of a minority constituency within the community, so that substantial (and often more important) needs of the “silent majority” go unmet or are given inadequate attention. Action: I would suggest that the board present an article at the next Annual Meeting of the School District proposing that subsequent negotiations be done in public. Let there be a public debate. This would guide the board in understanding the breadth and depth of the interest in negotiating in public, and would also help ensure attendance at such open negotiation meetings, if the community voted in favor of such a proposal. It would be important to provide easy access to the collective bargaining agreements (published on the district’s website), to inform the debate on the article.

    My other concerns relate to a large number of aspects of negotiations. Most would require changes in the level of detail in the data that is shared between negotiation teams, and even between each team and its board or association membership! (The latter comment relates to the “special arrangements” made for particular individuals or subgroups.) I believe that there are rational ways to address all these aspects of negotiations, given the political will and moral courage to do so. My experience is that one or both of these two commodities is not always available at any given point in history, especially in small communities where everyone knows everyone and where patterns of interaction may have become set in stone over many years.

    As always, the devil will be in the details.

    In conclusion, I will repeat my strong inclination towards negotiations being conducted in public, but also my caution that the damage from a poorly designed or poorly executed effort could be substantial and could reverberate for years to come.

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  4. Personally, I have never experienced a public negotiation. It is my opinion, however, since these are public dollars and public taxes all general negotiations should take place in a public forum. Sensitive personnel issues should remain in executive session.

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  5. We would probably never consider public participation during negotiations. The negotiation process is always updated to the entire board when necessary in executive session only. It is always discussed as executive session as far as I know according to bargaining agreements. A personal opinion would be “Don’t do it.! It could jeopardize any good relations you have with the teachers union.” The community elects board members to represent the community & taxpayers.

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  6. My understanding has always been that this would require mutual agreement between board and union – which seems unlikely, particularly from the union side.
    That issue aside, regarding PHILOSOPHY, I think that some form of this would be an excellent idea. It would certainly NOT be a good idea to have the public participate directly – even as simply as registering opinions during such meetings. The public could communicate with the board or union between meetings.

    A possible variant would be simply to have minutes of negotiation meetings made public, or to have RETN record the meetings and air them after the fact, without having the public present at the actual meeting.

    It has always irritated me to not be able to discuss actual proposals while the process was ongoing. I think that public viewing of the sessions, or having available to the public specific content, would go a long way toward minimizing frivolous or outrageous proposals by either side and would go a long way toward lending credibility to the education system in general.

    Negotiations is about the only issue on which we do not seek explicit public participation. Negotiations are the controlling factor in the largest single cost driver (salaries and benefits ) in the system (not to mention a variety of things screaming for reform that NEVER make it to the table). To tell the public that it is not allowed to be knowledgeable on and have input regarding this process is paramount to telling the public that it is not entitled to have meaningful input regarding this single most important cost driver.

    To present to the public the argument that if it does not like the settlement then it should reject the budge only adds insult to injury because NO-ONE believes that this strategy either will work or is a fair way to punish the entire system for a point that is correctable in a much simpler fashion.

    If the legislature wanted to pass a constructive law regarding education – as opposed to fumbling around and bungling almost everything – then a law empowering boards to make the decision re: public or private negotiations would be a good law to pass.

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  7. Our SU doesn’t negotiate in public, but I did mention at some point during the conference that I felt our individual district might have been able to reach an agreement with our teachers sooner than the SU did (in closed sessions). A few community members have requested that negotiations be more public, and I look forward to reading the info other members provide.

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  8. I’ve been on both sides of bargaining tables and I abhor the confidentiality (secrecy) that boards and unions practice. Both parties always argue that “progress (deals) can be brokered better when negotiators can be candid”, etc/etc. I have never seen candor at the table!
    The real reasons for secrecy are fear and shame. Negotiators fear that the public and bargainers would be filled with shame if the sausage-making process was viewed by reasonable taxpayers. The hours and months are terrible drains on resources. A few lawyers and VT-NEA prosper.

    Also charged: “Open-meeting negotiating would cause ‘pro- and anti-camps’”. Well, No, not necessarily…If the teachers and the Board members are reasonable in their “demands”, (interesting word, isn’t it!) there wouldn’t be extreme pro-/con- camps…In 2010, a 7% raise on a 30-60K Grid is extreme, and the VT-NEA shamefully insists that it isn’t. In 2010 a Board that demands its teachers pay 25% of insurance premiums is also extreme. Those positions demand secrecy. Reasonable people don’t.

    Kindly encourage your members and teachers to consider open-meetings where the Folks can watch.

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  9. A few people can make a mess of things in public…The team, through no fault of their own, can make themselves look real foolish/clueless in a hurry…Once said, words cannot be taken back. Proceed with caution…

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  10. We do not have negotiations in public. We have a committee made of board members. I would encourage with strict ground rules this to be a public negotiation. Maybe it would help the school board side. There are so many things we can’t do, the NEA can.

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  11. I am new to the board so this is my first experience with Contract Negotiations. It seems like there are a lot of sensitive issues being discussed, but I know there are people who have the impression that for some reason there is not full transparency by the Board. After going through the process this year, I will be more informed to answer your question next time around.

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  12. You may need to consult a lawyer, specializing in labor law, so that you can do this properly or have a well thought out reason for denying this request. Having never done this, or being aware of examples where this has occurred, I would be surprised if the union would be willing to negotiate in public.

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  13. I followed the Burlington open negotiations, and they seemed to work fine. I believe the issue is the public’s right to know. The process of negotiating may be embarrassing to some, but it is not a confidentiality issue. Both sides can still meet privately to plan strategy and determine responses, but the presentations and conversations should be held openly. Open negotiations also eliminate the opportunity for distortion and grandstanding.

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  14. I have no experience in this but feel if we are to get support from the public we need to be as transparent as ‘possible’.

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  15. The practice in this district has been to hold negotiations in executive session. The caucus function is available to either party as a means of forming a strategy or response before responding to the other party during negotiation sessions.

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  16. My thought on open contract negotiations is NO WAY! I realize that teachers are employees of the towns, however, all of their information is already made public. I feel that opening up negotiations would not be a good experience for anyone involved. Negotiations should continue in executive sessions. There is already enough input from (some) board members who don’t really understand the responsibilities of teachers. We don’t need more input from the public who aren’t involved in education in any way.

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  17. The only experience I have had with bargaining in public was when I was UniServ in NH. The Clarmont custodians always bargained in a restaurant as it helped them to keep their temper. It worked for them I have always opposed it because I feel it is a process that privacy helps. Both sides can be raggedy and it is not publicly viewed. I also think it would limit the ability to pass supposals to see where the other side sits. My quick thoughts if I think of something else to say I will email again.

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  18. OMG, I would NOT feel comfortable, with the citizens of our town in the negotiations at all. The feeling of the citizen tax payers is that we as school board members need to cut their pay, and get rid of the highest paid teachers for newbies. This is NOT my feeling however. My town is full of confrontational citizens, and with the economy in its current state, would just add fuel to the fire.

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  19. I have negotiated for both the board and the teachers. Ground rules were established that forbad any public announcements about what was going on; proposals from both sides had to be on the table at the second meeting. I would think that involving the public would be a disaster waiting to happen. Rather, the board should know ahead of time, perhaps with public input, what they are able to put on the table.

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  20. We do not do them in public and I do not believe it is such a good idea to release such info out to the public.. Staff should not hear such info!

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  21. This question you ask is funny!! We had the public invited to our last two negotiations and no one showed up!! This time we have invited the local public access station to film the events. The funny part is a couple of years when were concluding the process the newspaper made a comment about us keeping the negotiations secret at a school board meeting. I replied to him, “If you had got off your can you could have attended every session because it was opened to the public.” I see no problem with the public invited but you must keep TOTAL control and not let anyone speak from the public at any time!!

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  22. I think public sessions for negotiations should be the norm. We represent the public and they should know how we address contract negotiations.

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  23. I have never conducted negotiations in public but we have discussed it as a negotiating team. The consensus was that it would backfire for the teachers unions.

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  24. I have not conducted public contract negotiations while serving on the school board. I have been part of a negotiation team for my employer. We prepared by reviewing language well in advance of the negotiations and were able to make substantial clarifications prior to the actual negotiations. If the public should be invited, there would have to be strict rules: no input. No voice. The board is the voice of the community. Hope this helps.

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  25. On Conducting public negotiations. Good luck with that. As a board member you are charged with and given the authority to enter into negotiations with the teachers on the public’s behalf. The union will probably meet you with a lawyer and a restraining order if you tried. These are private matters generally held with gag orders on the contents. This is where your leadership and management traits that got you on the board come in. Act in the best interest of the Community and however it shakes out, if you can garner 50% approval you’ve done ok.
    The pro’s? there aren’t any. You will get skewered anyhow. The cons? Meet their lawyer and get back to us will you?

    Editor’s Note: Negotiations can and do happen with agreement from both sides prior to the meetings

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  26. I think the public should be in the mix it is the only way we can get the public to know how powerful the teacher unions have become.

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  27. Thanks for asking. In my opinion, having teacher – board negotiations open is the right thing to do, as when dealing with public schools we are dealing with public funds. Because of this, and except when dealing with protected categories, most of the communication regarding negotiations and the different positions for each party should be made available to the tax payer. We need to remember that the taxpayer is the one ultimately paying the bill. In addition, by having everything open, the chance of misinformation is minimized, everybody is kept honest, and the opportunity to negotiate in good will is maximized. Finally, having open negotiations, streamlines the communication between the main negotiating parties and the public.

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  28. Windham Northeast Supervisory Union has conducted recent teacher (and support staff) negotiations in open session, and plans to do so this year, as well. In addition, this year the local public access TV channel has said it will be present and will broadcast all of the negotiating sessions. We are looking forward to that, since our experience is that only other teachers tend to attend open sessions, and not even the press seems to have interest in what is going on (unless, of course, some crisis occurs down the road). With TV in the picture, the hope is that more community people and taxpayers will keep track of what is happening, what the teachers are demanding and what the boards are doing to protect the public purse. We have not found that open sessions inhibit any discussion, unless of course, it causes the teachers to be more careful in what they demand. That is not a bad thing. And there is no reason why the presence of a TV camera would change the situation.

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  29. I’ve seen a couple grievances conducted in an open meeting (the association objected), but not negotiations. I think it would be a good idea. You could probably expect the association to object, media to attend, and the public to attend (at least initially). The chair will need to keep good control and eliminate public comment, unless time is set aside for it. I know law allows executive session for negotiations, but not whether it’s required; nor what process would be followed if the association pressed their objection or refused to negotiate in public. The risk is negotiations turning into a circus. It might lessen the twist that the parties’ respective spokespeople put on negotiations.

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  30. I have served on several negotiation committees over the years, all of them in executive session. When everything is civil and there are no major disagreements between the two sides, this method works fine from the board perspective. However, when it is getting down to the end of the contract, there is no agreement, and things are getting contentious, it would be in the school district’s best interest to have the negotiations public. Everyone who serves on the school district side of the negotiations, by statute, is required to keep the confidentiality of executive session intact. When we report back to our home boards, we do it in executive session. When the newspaper comes sniffing around for information we have to say “no comment”. The union side of the equation can, and usually does, promote their side to the press, to their constituents, and to the public. I feel that if the union negotiating team can keep their constituents ( the teachers) informed of progress in the meetings, the school district should be allowed to do the same with their constituents ( the public) . Since no one knows how long negotiations will last, or if they will come down to the wire, the time to set the rules is in the beginning. Since you can’t stop individual teachers from talking to the press after hearing from their negotiating team, the only way to really level the playing field is to decide to negotiate in public from the very start.

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  31. First, conducting an “open” negotiations session is NOT a unilateral decision but has to be agreed to by both sides. Second, contrary to the belief of those who have not been part of the process, deliberations are most often discussed in caucus which are not, generally public nor do I think the VT/NEA would allow the public in their caucus. And three, for the process to proceed, my guess is that a public meeting would only permit negotiation team members to speak. The “public” might sit and listen when both sides are in the process of meeting (discussion) then, perhaps, be able to talk with “their” team during caucus. I’m SURE there are many ways to do it but those are my thoughts…..best to you….

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  32. I personally believe that *all* public business should (must?) Be conducted in view of the public who is paying for it, with the exception of certain personnel issues.

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  33. I would be in favor so long as the meetings were “controlled”. I believe it do the public good to attend and witness the work on everyone’s part to ensure that the best decision is made for all concerned. If time could be set aside for public input, it would be interesting to hear what the public has to say and offer. Who knows, perhaps different insights into the negotiations might prove to be of help.

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  34. Some very good points have been made here. I am always an ardent supporter of transparency in all public business; however, negotiations require a lot of positioning on both sides. The ability to caucus is imperative to both sides. Rather then having open meetings I would prefer to have press releases from both sides stating their current offers that are on the table.

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