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Tacoma schools should let public in on talks

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm with 1 Comment »
August 10, 2011 3:59 pm

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

Exactly how far apart are the Tacoma School District and its teachers union on the issues most likely to create an impasse in contract negotiations?

Apparently, not even they know.

That should rattle anyone who is counting on school to begin as scheduled Sept. 1.
The parties have met 20 times over two months, and yet – according to the union’s characterization of the sessions – have not broached such topics as wages, evaluations, professional development and class size.

You know, the contract’s minor details.

District officials won’t say what is bogging down teacher talks. The Tacoma school board has resisted a request by a good-school group to post information about the bargaining sessions like the Bethel and Bellevue districts have done, citing the importance of maintaining its long-term relationship with the union.

The silence is one-sided. The Tacoma Education Association has openly criticized the district for hobbling progress by hiring outside negotiators who have a financial incentive to prolong negotiations and for repeatedly refusing to discuss the most crucial elements of the contract.

Sussing out how large of a gulf separates the two sides – and whether the district is headed for a strike – is complicated by a nontraditional form of bargaining the parties originally agreed to use.

Under “interest-based bargaining,” the union doesn’t begin by saying that it’s a no-go for the district to pass along the teacher pay cut approved by the Legislature.
Rather, teacher representatives say they “have an interest” in “compensation so that staff members do not have to work more than one job to support themselves and their families.”

The collaborative approach works if the two sides are talking. Tellingly, negotiators have now switched to the traditional, position-based form of bargaining.

The district is also bringing in a state mediator. Union officials say they are confused by the move because the bargaining teams haven’t spent enough time on the nitty-gritty of the contract to have a dispute to mediate.

The Tacoma Education Association is primarily concerned with advocating for its members, not playing nice with the district. No surprise there – that’s its job.
District officials, on the other hand, owe a loyalty to the students, families, businesses and other community members who are depending on Tacoma schools to deliver a quality education.

The teacher contract is a key factor in whether scarce resources will be spent on the status quo or on greater student achievement over the next three years. It’s worth going to the mat if the result is a school system that fails fewer kids. But the public has no way to gauge whether the district is fighting the right fight without more transparency in the bargaining process.

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