I am optimistic that, through a set of discussions between town officials and district officials (including school committee members) facilitated by members of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, we will surface a number of topics, be informed of factors influencing decisions, and work towards an understanding of differing positions. I believe that sharing perceptions, reviewing assumptions, and agreeing on some factual standards will lead to a more thorough, open, and collaborative approach to developing budgets, supporting students, and providing an education that will make our towns even more attractive to new families. Having these discussions facilitated/moderated by a group of professionals who have no direct connection to the district or our member towns (but experienced working with town and school officials to complete the DESE mandated report on the district) will help bridge some differences as well as provide a path forward to some sort of consensus.
This need was again demonstrated by the lack of understanding reported in the Country Journal last week about a recent Chester meeting. At that meeting, it was reportedly brought up that the towns needed representatives at the negotiation table to ensure that a reasonable settlement with the Teachers’ Association could be reached. What was missing in that discussion, or at least in the reporting, is that the town selectboard chairs had a town representative involved in teacher negotiations as provided for in Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 150E, and Section 1. In fact, during the last set of negotiations, the school committee (who are also ‘town officials’ elected by their town residents) and teachers’ association went beyond the requirements of the law – sitting in on school committee executive sessions, being on the negotiations subcommittee, and having a vote in negotiations – by allowing that individual to actually be at the negotiating table.
It’s also interesting to note that union negotiations are actual negotiations; neither side gets to dictate the terms of how the meetings will move forward, what the final terms will be (whether salary, benefits, or other job-related items like time worked), or even when the meetings will be held. The idea of negotiations is really one of bargaining: both sides have items they’d like to see changed in the contract but both sides have to reach agreement, or consensus, on each item and the overall changes in total. Agreements need to occur both at the negotiating table and then with their own group (meaning the majority of all members of the Teachers’ Association, and a majority vote of the school committee—including the town representative—for the district). Setting a low-ball figure for the total value of the negotiated changes, even based upon the towns’ perceived ability to pay, isn’t allowed by law as that would essentially mean that one side has already set unrealistic terms (i.e., no or a very minimal increase in wages).
Each side does have input on setting parameters around the negotiations; they just must be reasonable and open to bargaining as negotiations proceed. If in fact a consensus can’t be reached during normal negotiations, there are processes in place to break any stalemate. These include following the provisions of Mass General Law Chapter 150E, Section 9 regarding mediation and arbitration.
The process of negotiating an agreement is set by state law, past practice, and past arbitration rulings making it more of a choreographed process rather than a freewheeling debate. In addition, we all need to remember that we’re not negotiating based just upon our own district; rather we are negotiating a settlement based upon what’s happening across the state so we can stay competitive and are able to attract, and retain, staff. We must also offer working conditions that are in line with state and federal regulations. The legal complexity is so great that both sides at the table usually retain legal and professional expertise to ensure the process moves forward without running afoul of the many negotiating rules and prior decisions. The final consensus is often reached only after many meetings, much discussion, and many resources being accessed for basic facts and figures.