My Introduction to Grievance and Arbitration

by By Roger Prosise, superintendent, Diamond Lake School District, Mundelein, Ill

In my ninth year as a school superintendent, I had my first experience with the grievance and arbitration process. The grievance was filed by the district’s teachers’ union against the board of education. I represented the board.

Initially I found the fact that a grievance was filed very stressful. However, to my surprise over the ensuing 14 months that it took to work through the grievance and arbitration, I found the experience to be interesting and challenging. A grievance, I learned, was not necessarily a bad thing. It gave me an opportunity to take a stand on a belief I felt was important.

Once the grievance was filed, my initial reaction was to question whether I made the right decision. Even though I was sure I did not violate the teachers’ contract or board of education policy, I still went over these two documents closely two or three more times. I had to be absolutely certain that I did not commit a violation.

A grievance can be a stressful experience. Even though I knew my action was consistent with the teachers’ contract and board policy, I gave a great deal of thought to what I did and why. Time and again I contemplated such questions as these: Was my decision made in the best interests of children? Did I make a fair and objective decision? Were the teachers who were named in the grievance identified by the committee responsible for interviewing teachers as the top candidates?

The fact that I could answer “yes” to these questions helped me cope with the stress I was feeling and gave me peace of mind.

A teachers’ association has the right to file a grievance if it thinks a violation of the teachers’ contract has occurred. Management and the board of education try to work with the teachers’ association to reach a resolution. If that fails the case may go to arbitration.

A Wage Dispute
The grievance and arbitration process I experienced had to do with the initial placement of newly hired teachers on the salary schedule. As superintendent, I gave three bilingual teachers credit for nontraditional experience, which placed them above step one on the salary schedule.

The teachers in question had worked as teacher aides and in adult education. I gave them credit as a way of attracting them to my school district. If I had not, they would have taken jobs in another district that was closer to their homes or that paid higher salaries. Given the shortage of bilingual teachers, my only alternative would be to hire less-qualified teachers, which I thought would have been a tremendous disservice to students. The teachers’ association’s position on this issue was that these teachers should have been placed on step one of the salary schedule.

The board of education and teachers’ association were unable to come to a resolution and so the case went to arbitration. Fortunately the arbitrator ruled in favor of the board.

My Lessons
I learned several points about the role of the superintendent in the grievance and arbitration process:

* Be sure you’re not violating the teachers’ contract.
Ask members of the board of education and other administrators review the case and offer an opinion. If you realize your decision violates the contract, admit it and work with the teachers’ association on a resolution. However if as in my case you believe no violation has occurred, you should meet with the board of education to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of moving ahead with the grievance. Consider the possible outcomes if the final decision is favorable or unfavorable.

* Check past practice.
Review whether teachers had been granted credit for nontraditional experience in the past. If so, how did the teachers’ association respond? This will take a fair amount of time. I had to look through old personnel files and contact a retired superintendent to help make the case that my decision was consistent with past practice.

* Examine the basis of your decision.
Did you make an arbitrary or logical decision? You need to demonstrate the logic of your decision and that it was made in the best interest of students. The fact that the teachers named in the grievance were recommended by a committee of fellow teachers helped make the argument that my decision was not arbitrary.

* Work closely with the school board’s attorney.
I spoke with the attorney on the telephone approximately five times and I met with him for two hours to prepare for the hearing. Legal fees for the grievance and arbitration came to approximately $8,000. This was unfortunate since the money could have been used for something much more useful, such as staff development.

* Plan for future related questions.
If the arbitrator rules in favor of the board of education, be prepared for the issue in question to be a part of the next round of collective bargaining. In fact, soon after the arbitrator ruled in favor of the board of education, the teachers’ association made it clear that this issue would be a part of the next round of collective bargaining.

Roger Prosise is superintendent of Diamond Lake School District 76, 500 Acorn Lane, Mundelein, IL 60060. E-mail: