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How Not to Negotiate: Thompson’s Tepid Tentative Agreement

Last week, we dove into the ongoing ugliness in Thompson School District. The highlight of that post was CEA’s bogus petition against the board majority’s attempts to draft clearer MOU for negotiation. Certainly, CEA’s involvement in the district is a major issue and seriously alters the calculus as negotiations move forward. Reform board members were escorted to their cars by police after a recent meeting. The president of the Thompson Education Association (TEA) responded by saying that although he encourages union members to be professional, “passions will be passions.” Nice.

So yeah, that’s a little concerning. Yet maybe the union isn’t the only thing reformers in Thompson have to worry about. The district’s own bureaucrats may be serious obstacles themselves.

My education policy friend Ross Izard published a new column today about the tentative agreement that has emerged from the district’s negotiations with the local union, the Thompson Education Association. The tentative agreement is… far from promising. And that’s putting it kindly. As Ross explains, the reformers have been pretty clear about what they were looking for in negotiations:

The Thompson school board has provided guidance to its negotiating team throughout the district’s negotiating process, and Proposition 104 has allowed the public to watch the results unfold.

Reform-minded members have called for the elimination of privileged union access to district communications systems and facilities, the ending of the district’s current practice of collecting union dues through its payroll system, and a rethinking of exclusive representation rights for the Thompson Education Association (TEA). Additionally, large sections of the current contract would be moved to more appropriate locations like an employee handbook or board policy.

Reformers have also called for more sensible approaches to the contract’s fiscal issues. Foremost among these is the removal of the district’s Performance Management Incentive (PMI) program, which tethers teacher stipends to criteria that have little to do with classroom performance. This outdated program was to be replaced by a true pay-for-performance pilot based on current practice and research.

In a normal situation, guidance like this would mean that the district’s negotiating team would roll up its sleeves, sit down at the negotiating table, and get to work fighting for the goals of the duly elected school board. In Thompson, it meant quite the opposite.

District bureaucrats on the negotiating team have consistently failed to commit to, or represent, the board’s articulated direction. The current tentative agreement fails to address nearly anything the board has proposed.

Union access to communications systems and district facilities remains in place, backed by a faulty assumption by district negotiators that a December National Labor Relations Board decision applies to Colorado school districts. PMI remains in place, and no pay-for-performance pilot has been created. Instead, the prospect of a pilot program will be studied by a district committee—an absurd bureaucratic dodge. Pension payment increases once again will fall fully on the district.

Other issues have been cast aside more subtly. For example, rather than push to relocate appropriate contract articles to an employee handbook or board policy, the tentative agreement would only allow for articles already covered by board policy or statute to be moved to a handbook. This slight change in wording represents a serious departure from the board’s position on the issue.

The articles that have been moved to a handbook still cannot be changed without the approval of a negotiation oversight committee, bringing less transparency and accountability. The four-person committee has been kept small in an effort to skirt Proposition 104 and remain behind closed doors—a practice observed throughout Thompson’s negotiations. The new tentative agreement would expand the use of these small, closed committees during future proceedings. This is presumably an attempt to further exclude the public during negotiations in coming years.

No revisions have been made to MOU provisions on taxpayer-subsidized union leave time, and provisions related to dues deduction and exclusive representation remain entirely untouched.

In other words, not only does the tentative agreement fail to address any of the board’s concerns, it adds insult to injury by proposing even less transparency in future negotiations. How’s that for a stick in the eye?

All of this raises an immensely important question: What did the negotiating team do for the last several months? Pizza? Movies? Pillow fights? No doubt those who watched the sessions themselves (thanks, Prop 104!) will tell you that much “collaborating” and “respecting” was done—and I think those things are great—but I don’t see much evidence of actual negotiation in the final product. Capitulation, maybe. But not negotiation. In this case, not even the copious application of fluffy synonyms for cooperation can hide the fact that the union walked away from the table with everything it wanted and the district walked away empty handed.

Here’s hoping Thompson’s reformers see this tentative agreement for what it is: A stark illustration of the edu-blob’s resistance to change, and a reminder that real reform often requires a stronger push.