Focus: Personnel Management              Pages 12-13


A Preflight Checklist Before

Contract Negotiations Take




Howard Smith

We would be aghast at the notion of a flight crew jumping into the cockpit of an airliner and taking off after only a cursory glance at a rudimentary preflight checklist. Yet school district bargaining teams often find themselves commencing formal contract negotiations without having completed a “preflight” checklist of their own that is commensurate with the complexity of the task ahead.

Typically, both parties begin by working with their respective constituencies in parallel (and in secret) to identify their objectives and develop bargaining positions, without benefit of extensive data. Their positions then are stated in extreme terms when bargaining begins, requiring each party to read between the lines to determine what the other party really wants to achieve.

A structured and transparent prenegotiation process that facilitates sharing of relevant data, articulation of perceptions and development of goals (as opposed to positions) can allow a superintendent to build trust and manage expectations on the part of both the school board and the teachers’ union. This can set the stage for a negotiation process that is more about problem solving in an effort to achieve better-informed goals than about posturing in defense of inadequately informed positions.

The first step involves reinforcing the theme of transparency. You inform both parties of the intention to develop a prenegotiation process that will unfold over several months to increase the likelihood of achieving a win-win agreement.

The time-tested work of Roger Fisher and William Ury, in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, can be a useful guide in developing an effective prenegotiation checklist. Once the checklist is complete, it should be presented in draft form to both parties to enable some tweaking before it is finished.

Opening Their Eyes
A checklist built around the following basic elements proved to be effective in achieving a successful outcome to recent teachers’ contract negotiations in our 2,900-student school district in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Collect, analyze and share data. Start by sharing with each teacher the cost of his/her total salary and benefits package. Teachers tend to be strikingly ignorant about the monetary value of the benefits they enjoy and their significance as a contributing factor in the cost of total compensation that is driven by their contract.

Create and share a spreadsheet containing an itemized cost analysis of every provision in the contract that requires an expenditure of district funds. This can help to identify expenses historically dismissed by the union as “nickels and dimes” that add up to real dollars. Faced with a scarcity of new dollars to fund across-the-board salary increases, teachers’ unions may be willing to redirect dollars that only benefit a small subgroup of teachers for use in ways that will benefit all of their members.

Collect and share salary and benefits data associated with other public employee groups and with the private sector in your region. This exercise often is deferred for use only as part of the designated process following an impasse. Yet making this information available up front can provide the union with a political reality check. In order for a settlement to be supported by the public, it must reflect sensitivity to the economic circumstances of local taxpayers whose retirement and health benefits packages are not as generous.

Discuss contract perceptions. Perceptions of the fairness and appropriateness of an existing contract vary depending upon the lens through which the contract is viewed, but they invariably serve as the basis for bargaining positions. Failure to flush out perceptions in advance and compare them with reality as defined by the data that have been collected can result in premature adoption of extreme positions seemingly devoid of context.

Discussions in our school district revealed that teachers perceived their longevity stipends to be relatively low, while school board members saw a lack of linkage between teacher performance and compensation in the contract. We shared data that validated both views, and these properly informed perceptions fed into the goal-adoption process.

Determine goals to be achieved. Identification of goals, as opposed to positions, by both parties opens the door to consideration of multiple ways to achieve outcomes in the desired direction (key elements of Fisher and Ury’s negotiating principles).

The validated perceptions in our district translated to a teachers’ union goal of increasing the dollar amount of longevity stipends and an unrelated board goal of finding ways to begin tying compensation to performance. Neither party adopted a position regarding a specific outcome. As a result of the flexibility this provided during the negotiation process, each party’s goal was achieved by an agreement that tied performance criteria to longevity-stipend increases.

Agree upon ground rules for the negotiation process. Rather than representing the beginning of the negotiation process, a discussion of ground rules should represent the culmination of the prebargaining process. Apart from the typical ground rules, an agreement to schedule relatively frequent sessions of not much more than an hour in duration, with minimal caucusing, can have the effect of keeping things moving in a reasonably cordial manner.

Committing to the use of a well-conceived preflight checklist might not prevent the journey from being bumpy on occasion, but it may lead to a smoother takeoff and landing.

Howard Smith is superintendent of the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. E-mail: hwsmith@tufsd.org  


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