Not unlike herding bees
In 2013, I was interviewing with the Mt. Mason School District school board for a one-year position as interim superintendent. Before heading out to meet them, I read several online news reports and viewed a TV clips about the bitter feud between the school district and its three unions (teachers, support staff and administrators) over long, unsettled labor contracts.
As I drove into Mt. Mason I was greeted by a “Welcome to Mt. Mason, NY State’s Friendliest Small Town,” sign that belied the news reports I had read and seen on television which featured picket signs and angry, yelling townsfolk.
As I drove around the town in the hour I had to kill before my interview the word that came to my mind was “sleepy.” A few small shops, a diner, two gas stations, a car wash, two liquor stores and a large grocery store dominated the “downtown” area. There were very few cars on the road at 7 p.m. Several suburban housing developments directly off the two main roads into town had well-kept lawns and homes. Most of the residents apparently commuted to work in Albany or Schenectady.
I spotted the three elementary schools and the nearby middle school and high school that served the 2,100 students in Mt. Mason’s schools. The 1960s and 70s era school buildings looked good from the outside and there were no ongoing major construction projects.
Click here to buy the book.
My online check of Mt. Mason’s schools and their test scores showed them as average performers in comparison to other school districts with similar demographics. This was interesting only because the bitterness generated by extended union contract talks, now stalled for five years, can frequently push student test scores down over a period of time.
When I arrived to the interview room I was greeted by Mt. Mason’s five school board members and the BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) regional school district superintendent, Paul Johnson, a colleague I had known for more than 20 years. Everyone was cordial and positive in demeanor and tone.
Again, this contradicted the scenes I had seen on television and read about in the paper. I knew from other superintendents this board had two bitter factions and that BOCES superintendent Paul Johnson had weathered several contentious arguments with them over previous superintendents who were unsuccessful, according to the board. They blamed Paul who, as BOCES superintendent, had helped with their superintendent searches.
One group, the apparent board majority with three members, feared a contract settlement that “gave away the store” with higher salaries for employees and inadequate give backs from the unions on benefit costs and work rules.
The second group, the board minority with two members, feared that continuing strife from the unsettled contracts would tear the district apart, damaging academic results and exacerbating a negative climate in the schools for students, teachers, parents and administrators.
I based my answers to their questions on my previous experience in districts with difficult employee contract negotiations where I had to repair damage caused by long-standing contract negotiations.
I was pretty sure all involved feared being viewed as the “losers” in the never-ending negotiations battle. Saving face and pride are the two biggest impediments to settling long-expired contracts.
My answers to their questions emphasized three key points:
1. The school board needed a simple set of negotiation goals for each unsettled contract.
2. The best way to identify compromises we could all live with was with data showing how Mt. Mason compared with the other school districts in the area.
3. The school board members needed to get out of the way so the interim superintendent could settle the contracts.
Mt. Mason was much too small to drive the local employee labor market. Bigger districts do that and then only to a limited degree. The best Mt. Mason could do was make certain their settlement reflected or at least moved the district closer to the norms in the region.
The interview was brief and I assumed when it ended quickly that I had somehow missed showing those present the key ingredient they were searching for so I was surprised when the next day the Paul Johnson called me to offer me the position.
The offer came with a warning: “I’m not supposed to tell you this but you and I have worked together for many years and I want to be honest with you so you know what you are getting into,” Paul said. “They are still bitterly feuding and they are exhausted. In your case, the majority ruled.”
I had worked with split school boards before and it was very difficult. In time this one would prove even more difficult.
“Okay,” I said, “let me meet with them and discuss what I want to do. If they still want to hire me when we’re done, I’ll take the job. If not I’ll tell you, ‘no thanks,’ and we’ll go our separate ways.”
My next meeting was set for the following Monday night at 7 p.m.
I was prepared with some large poster-sized sheets of paper and some magic markers, some blank sheets of 8 ½” by 11” copier paper, some pens and six copies of the existing teacher contract the superintendent’s secretary had graciously provided to me.
“I know this school board has a long-standing disagreement about the unsettled contracts,” I told them, once we settled in. “I also know your board is split on the issue of whether I can successfully help you settle the contracts and run your district effectively for the next year.
“I also have some doubts about whether I can do this successfully given the level of friction I’ve read about in the newspaper and seen on television. And given the disagreement you have about whether I’m the right person for the job.”
Then, I proposed a 90-minute session that would help both of us decide whether or not to move forward.
At first there was silence before three of the school board members said they would be willing to work with me for 90 minutes. One of the two reluctant board members who didn’t immediately agree to my request, a big grey-haired man in a red plaid flannel shirt wanted to know what we’d do for 90 minutes.
“I don’t want to waste an hour and a half if you’re not going to be our superintendent,” he barked.
“I’m going to try to get all of you to agree on some goals for the teacher negotiations. Whether I am here or not those goals will be helpful for the school board,” I told him.
The other reluctant member, who had not agreed to my request, a young woman with long black hair and large tortoise shell eyeglasses, spoke up.
“We already know what we want from those negotiations and we haven’t been able to agree for several years. How are you going to get us to agree in an hour and a half?” she wanted to know.
“Whether we can come to an agreement on these goals in a reasonable amount of time will reveal if an effort to resolve these unsettled contracts makes sense for you and for me.”
“Okay, let’s get this over with,” the man in the plaid shirt bellowed. The woman nodded.
I asked the board majority (three members), who shared concerns about the financial costs and work rules for teachers in any potential contract settlements, to sit together in one corner of the room and the board minority (two members) with concerns about the negative climate in the district to sit together in the opposite corner.
When the chairs and tables were rearranged I handed each of the five board members paper and a pen and each group a marker and poster-sized paper. I also gave each school board member a copy of the existing teachers’ contract, which expired five years earlier but still remained in effect due to New York State laws and supporting court decisions.
“It’s 7:15 p.m.,” I told them. “For the next 10 minutes I want you to individually write down your three most important goals for teacher negotiations.
“Feel free to write more than three as you’re making up your mind but when 10 minutes are up I want three in priority order with No. 1 being most important and No. 3 being least important.
“Don’t confer with your fellow school board members. I want these to be YOUR teacher negotiations priorities not someone else’s.”
While they completed the task I wandered around like a high school math teacher checking my students’ classwork.
A pattern began to emerge.
The majority members had more specific numerical goals about salary increases and benefit costs and about prep period times and class loads for high school teachers. The minority group had more goals about getting the contract settled quickly to repair the damage that had been done by protracted negotiations.
Neither group had any goals about saving face or looking like they were “winning” and not “losing” the negotiations, but I could read between the lines.
Winning or at least not losing negotiations is paramount to most school boards and many superintendents. By getting the board members to write down their goals I was forcing them to put their cards on the table. Like most, this group did not want to appear shallow so they skipped writing down the goal of winning. But I knew we’d have to face this issue head on before a final agreement on the contract could be ratified by a positive school board vote.
Every negotiations I’ve participated in included personal animosity and issues related to ego. Many school board members and superintendents try to make themselves look important by verbally promising unrealistic unachievable negotiations goals. But they hesitate to put unrealistic goals in writing.
When ten minutes were up I asked one member of each group to record the three goals of each board member while the others took a short break. Five minutes later the majority group had nine goals and the minority group had six goals.
I asked the groups to edit, combine and simplify their goals as concisely as possible and write down the most comprehensive list possible that included every board member’s priority goals.
The room was instantly buzzing with what any teacher would call “good talk” about the key issues and their importance. When I stopped the conversations, I asked one member from each group to print in large letters their final goals so everyone could see them. The group of three had consolidated their nine goals into six. The group of two board members had consolidated their six goals into four.
I gave them the next 15 minutes to discuss these goals and advocate for their own point of view within their group regarding which goals were most important and why. When the 15 minutes of discussion ended I had them tack their lists of six and four goals to the bulletin board at the front of the room and prioritize the goals on their group’s list by using six small stickers.
They were to affix three stars next to their first priority goal, two stars next to their second priority goal and one star next to their third priority goal.
I made certain the goals that didn’t make the cut in the final priority list for both groups were visible to members of the other group. I wanted everyone to know that sacrifices had been made by their “opponents” to reach this shorter priority list. Goals that didn’t make the cut included those about repairing damage that had been done to the school district’s reputation as a result of protracted negotiations, teacher class loads and work schedules and the school year and day length.
I asked them to move their desks and chairs back into a rough class-like formation. When the desks were back in order I moved the two completed goal sheets up side by side on the bulletin board at the front of the room and I told them to read the two sheets for the next three minutes and identify the surprises and the anticipated items they saw in the list created by the other group. This is what they were looking at (excluding the goals that didn’t make the final priority list).
Board majority group’s priority goals for teacher negotiations:
1. Teacher raises of less than 1 percent new money in total per year including incremental steps; no more than inflation; and no retroactive raises.
2. Teacher contributions for health insurance increase from zero percent to 40 percent.
3. Retirement incentive to clean out some of the deadwood teachers at the top of the salary schedule.
Board minority group’s priority goals for teacher negotiations:
1. Settle teacher contract negotiations this year.
2. Give teachers a fair salary increase to reduce negative climate in the district.
3. Teachers should contribute something toward health insurance.
All five school board members understood that the cost of “increment” (teachers moving up the salary schedule from one step to the next) meant teachers would receive a built-in raise at each step.
These amounts varied due to the anomalies of one or more previously negotiated contracts. Which steps received raises is usually based on who’s on the negotiating team. A zero percent raise is likely due to the fact that the teachers on the negotiating committee were not on those steps. (And once something like that is established it becomes an anomaly that creates bulges in future annual budgets.)
Increments cost Mt. Mason district an additional 1.2 to 1.8 percent of the total teacher salary cost each year. Step raises ended for individual Mt. Mason teachers after 30 years.
Teachers received these step raises even while the contract was expired, a requirement based on New York State labor law and supporting court decisions.
Mt. Mason teachers received no raises beyond step raises over this five-year period of stalled negotiations, and I knew the majority board members wouldn’t ever agree to retroactive raises.
However, both groups of school board members had goals of giving some level of salary increase beyond the increment raises as we moved forward.
I asked the five school board members what surprised them about the list created by the board members in the group they were not part of.
“I‘m surprised they listed health insurance contributions as a priority goal. They never said that before,” said the grey-haired man.
“We have always supported health insurance contributions just not at 40 percent,” said the young woman with the tortoise shell glasses.
I jumped in immediately. “Okay, let’s stay on task. What about the other group of board members? What surprised you about the board majority’s goals?” I asked.
“Both groups have goals about salary and health insurance,” said a quieter man in his thirties, who I later learned was Mike Testa.
“That’s right,” I said. “Let me see if I can get both groups on the same page on those two goals.”
I realized later that Mike Testa could be helpful to me. He was thoughtful and his soft spoken manner was less antagonistic than that of the grey-haired man with the plaid shirt. Mike could also get the black-haired woman in the tortoise shell glasses to soften her approach so that better communication took place.
I turned to the board majority seated to my right. “You have set 1 percent total new money and no retroactive raises as your salary goal. Do you know what your teachers are paid relative to other districts in the area?”
The grey-haired man I now recognized as the school board president, Harold Smith, spoke. “Our teachers are paid too much already,” he said. “They only work ten months and they get all those school vacations. We shouldn’t give them any raise at all.”
When he finished speaking an older grey-haired woman seated to his right, who I later learned was Helen Anderson, spoke up: “To answer your question, we have heard our teachers make more than those in Amsterdam and Gloversville. They’re nearby and comparable to our district.” she said.
“But have you seen an actual salary comparison on paper of all the local school districts?” I asked.
“No.” she responded.
“Have any of you seen a written summary of all the local district’s health insurance costs per teacher and contribution rates teachers make for their health insurance?” I asked the entire school board.
“We have heard that the teachers in the same two districts contribute 20 percent toward the cost of their health insurance, but we have not seen a written summary of all the local districts,” Helen Anderson said.
“If the other districts paid their teachers more or paid less for their health insurance with teachers paying a higher percentage of their health insurance costs, would that alter how you see these issues?” I asked the three members of the school board majority.
“Yes, we don’t want to be taken advantage of by the teachers’ union, but we want to be reasonable,” Helen said. “We should look at that data and make sure we’re headed toward the average for the area, no more and no less on salary and health insurance.”
During this entire conversation the third member of the school board majority, a big man dressed in blue jeans and a rumpled black sweatshirt, who I later found out was named Doug Allen, said nothing.
“What do you think about the teacher salary question?” I asked him in an effort to involve him in the discussion so I could better gauge his viewpoint. Doug looked confused.
Harold jumped in to protect his friend. “He thinks our teachers are paid too much and should contribute more for their health insurance; same as me.” Harold said.
Doug smiled and pointed to Harold. “What he said.”
I found it amusing the first time Doug said “what he said” after Harold said something. About the tenth time I found it annoying. It was pretty much all I heard Doug say the entire year I worked in Mt. Mason except when he talked about his red pick-up truck, his obvious pride and joy.
I turned to the two member board minority group. “Your group said you want a fair salary increase for the teachers. How would you measure whether the salary is fair?” I asked.
“I see where you are going with this,” said the woman with the tortoise shell glasses I later learned was Tabitha Conner. “We’d have to look at our district’s salary in comparison to other local districts and I think we can live with that on both salary and health insurance.”
“I think a compromise you can both live with can be made. Give me a minute to write it down.” I grabbed a Sharpie and wrote out:
1. Teacher total new money salary increases (step plus raises) and health insurance savings in comparison to projected health insurance costs and salary costs without a new teacher contract settlement when combined (a) should not exceed one percent of the 2015-16 salary base per year for the period of the contract. And, (b) should move the district to within two percent of the average salary and health insurance costs per teacher for local school districts.
I placed my newly minted goal on the bulletin board beside the other lists of three priority goals and asked if everyone could live with it.
They studied the proposed negotiations goal and then asked several questions. Who do we compare ourselves with? How would we determine the salary base? Who will put together the comparison data? How soon would we have this data? How would the teachers’ expectation for retroactive raises figure into this goal?
I answered each question carefully, explaining what I knew and what it would take more time for me to figure out. After ten minutes of questions, they were silent.
“Can you live with this?” I asked. They all nodded, in a few cases looking very surprised.
“What about our other goals?” Tabitha asked.
“I have no problem with them. We should make them goals two and three,” I said.
Our final list of three goals was:
1. Teacher total new money salary increases (step plus raises) and health insurance savings in comparison to projected health insurance costs and salary costs without a new teacher contract settlement when combined (a) should not exceed one percent of the 2015-16 salary base per year for the period of the contract. And, (b) should move the district to within two percent of the average salary and health insurance costs per teacher for similar school districts.
2. Retirement incentive for teachers.
3. Settle the teacher contract this year.
I looked at the clock. “It’s been 90 minutes. I think we’re done here,” I said and smiled.
They all smiled and began to chat with each other as I packed up. Harold Smith approached me.
“Look, you did what you promised and we all want you to stay on as our interim superintendent if that’s okay with you?” he asked, almost apologetically.
“I believe I can settle these contracts and achieve these goals, but you have to let me do the negotiations my way without the school board directly involved and without making inflammatory public statements,” I said.
I knew from conversations with the BOCES superintendent, Paul Johnson, that Harold Smith had inserted himself directly into the negotiations in previous years. His yelling and rants at board meetings and in the press had added immeasurably to an already acrimonious relationship between the teacher union leadership and bargaining team. If he stayed out of the way I could get this done. If he stuck his nose in as he had in the past, nothing good could happen.
Harold looked sheepish, “I’ll leave it to you. The other approach hasn’t worked. I’ll trust you. I promise,” he said. We shook hands and both smiled.
“I’ll work out the salary and start date details with Paul Johnson and your outgoing superintendent and I’ll be back in touch once we have a signed contract,” I told him.
“I know you think I’m the problem here based on what you’ve seen in the news but you haven’t dealt with Sally Anselm, the teacher union president. She’s a bitch on wheels and she’ll make your life more miserable than you can imagine,” Harold said.
“Harold, I have a bit of experience dealing with unions. I’m certain Sally and her negotiating team will be tough, but I feel confident we can find a way to make things work out.” I said.
This was not my first rodeo.
FDR was mostly right
Soon after becoming a teacher in 1970 I remember reading that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the famous Democrat and depression era and WWII president, did not believe in public union’s negotiating salary and benefits.
This confused me. Weren’t the Democrats supporters of unions? Didn’t FDR help to establish the National Labor Relations Board and support private unions? Why this stance on public unions?
FDR apparently concluded that the city, county and village legislators, state legislatures or Congress should set wages and benefits for public employees and that while the public sector employees should be free to join unions their involvement in negotiations with their government employers made no sense.
After 40-plus years working with public unions I’ve come to the conclusion that FDR was mostly right. The situation in Mt. Mason is typical of the teacher and public employee negotiations that distract us from the critical task of making our public institutions more responsive and effective while wasting enormous amounts of precious leadership time and public tax dollars on local negotiations.
Frequently, these negotiations in the strong public union states pit David, played by the local public employer, against Goliath, played by the local public union and its state level partner. And it’s not just the teachers union, it’s the bus drivers’ union, the administrators, the support staff union.
As a result of laws and court decisions, public union employees are guaranteed annual raises based on seniority steps, continuing high cost health insurance sans teacher contributions and high employer contributions to state controlled pension plans.
When a school district sits down at the table, they’re fighting an uphill battle against a well-funded state level opponent.
These guarantees produced by laws and supporting court decisions apply to state, local government and school district employees in strong public union states. Public unions in these states gained an unfair advantage through campaign contributions and endorsements provided to members of both Democratic and Republican parties.
The public unions received paybacks in the form of a ratcheting up of negotiations advantages over the decades of the 1960s through the 1990s. In New York State, Democrats received the majority of this largess, but the Republicans took their share as well. The union contributed millions to their campaigns and continue to contribute to this day.
To make these negotiation contests less lopsided school districts, towns, villages and cities try to arm themselves with the best slingshots available (expensive labor attorneys) who have developed an extremely well-funded cottage industry that grows into a more expensive and debilitating barnacle on public school district ship every year.
While private worker union influence has shrunk over the past five decades due to the impact of globalization and technology, public unions have become even more pernicious, particularly in states that made strategic errors by passing laws that tilted negotiations toward unions.
Public employee unions gained negotiating power primarily in blue states like New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California. States like Ohio and Wisconsin, where Republicans have taken over control, have tried to create a more equitable balance. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, short one member due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, tied 4-4 on a crucial case that could have had a negative impact on public union finances. But entrenched power seldom slinks away quietly, especially when serious money is on the table.
In Albany, NY, where I served as a school superintendent for six years, extended and acrimonious negotiations with our teachers’ union, our support staff union and our school administrators’ union included several incidents that illustrated the bitterness that can come from these public union conflicts.
• My mailbox was destroyed by early morning explosions on three separate occasions during negotiations.
• Someone banged on my door at 2 a.m. waking and frightening my teenage daughter and my ex-wife while I was working at an extended night time negotiations session with the teachers’ union.
• My car was “parked in” by a vehicle belonging to one of the district’s teachers who parked his car one inch from my vehicle in an attempt to make it impossible for me to drive home after a negotiating session that didn’t end until 4 a.m. (It took me an hour but I got out of the spot.)
• At the height of the same negotiations a disgruntled and ineffective payroll employee who was also a member of the support staff union leadership was involved in several conflicts in the office and had repeatedly been uncooperative with her supervisor. This employee was transferred to a different job in a different building at the same rate of pay. I had investigated the possibility of terminating this employee, but the school district’s attorney told us that given her union leadership status firing her would probably result in a reinstatement by the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) that oversees challenges on such issues.
The day she left for her new work assignment the entire payroll file for our district was deleted from our computer system. This delayed paychecks for 1,200 employees and required several employees to work overtime on the weekend to hand write checks for the impacted employees who received their paychecks one to three days late.
Despite the fact that we could trace the payroll file deletion back to the specific computer used by this employee our attorney strongly advised us not to take further disciplinary action against her due to her union leadership status and PERB rules and decisions regarding union animus (retaliatory actions by public employers toward public union leaders).
“Permanent status,” which is like tenure for non-teaching employees, also can protect bad behavior, illegal acts and just plain poor performance, particularly for union leaders because they will claim union animus.
• A confidential negotiations document I had given to the school board describing my plan to begin to replace the existing high school educated teacher aide staff with lower paid and more highly qualified teacher assistants with teaching certification or at least a bachelor’s degree through attrition was pilfered from my desk and altered to say my plan was to immediately lay off all these employees (over 100).
The altered version (I had no plans to lay off anyone during this process.) was distributed to all the members of the district’s support staff union. Imagine my surprise when over 150 members of this union showed up at our next school board meeting with no warning.
These employees, who attended the meeting as a result of theft and deception, were armed with picket signs calling for my firing and they chanted repeatedly “Palmer must go” for the benefit of the television and newspaper reporters they had called in advance of the meeting.
• During the acrimonious negotiations with our support staff union I visited one of the district’s elementary schools to check on the progress of summer cleaning and maintenance work. When I returned to my car I found I had a flat tire. I pulled into the adjacent gas station and asked them to fix the tire while I grabbed lunch in the diner across the street.
When I returned from lunch the mechanic said, “Well, I can fix the two holes in the tire tread but the 14 holes in the sidewall are another matter. You’ll need a new tire.”
• When I was the interim superintendent in Troy, NY, I made decisions that reduced unnecessary overtime for custodians. Several of those custodians were making more in yearly wages than my newer school principals due to “boiler” time where they “watched” the steam boilers in the high school and the middle school at night, supposedly for safety reasons. No safety issues had ever been noted during these overtime shifts and I had previously worked in other school districts with steam boilers like those in Troy that did not pay overtime for steam boiler supervision.
Shortly after I ended “boiler babysitting” a bullet hole mysteriously appeared in a window in my office, the air conditioning in my office did not work and wasn’t fixed for several months (this resulted in severe allergies I struggle with to this day) and a key supervisory custodial employee took a leave of absence of more than one year in duration for an unspecified illness creating significant operational issues for the district and for me.
I don’t need to be convinced that public unions are a menace, but I had to put aside my distaste for public unions and find a way to work out the contracts that had expired in Mt. Mason. Fortunately, I knew where to find the money needed to resolve these long standing disputes given my experience in the intricacies of teacher salary and benefits.
Click here to buy the book.
(Sections in italics are fictional stories based on composites of multiple actual experiences.)