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Hammond, Ind., Teachers and District Agree to Unprecedented 12-Year Pact

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By Ann Bradley

The Hammond, Ind., teachers' union and the city school district have agreed to an unprecedented 12-year "living contract" that is expected to give educators there more flexibility in responding to schools' needs.

The new contract, which runs through December 2001, is the first of its kind in the nation, according to the American Federation of Teachers.

The long-term agreement represents an attempt by the union and the district to break free of conventional collective bargaining and form a "partnership" to encourage school improvement, said Patrick O'Rourke, president of the Hammond Teachers' Federation, an aft affiliate.

"Schools are hard to change--that's the bottom line of this," he said. "Any time we can do anything that makes them more flexible, we're better off."

The contract calls for the administration and the union to establish an "educational-restructuring committee" that will consider ways to reorganize the school system, which already has a reputation as a pioneer in school-based management.

The pact allows either the union or the district to seek changes in the agreement at any time, but specifies that 60 days' notice must be given.

Both sides would negotiate any new provisions and submit the resulting agreement to the union for ratification.

"We're not locked into any restrictive work rule beyond 60 days," Mr. O'Rourke explained. "If the union and administration see a better way to do something, this gives us the authority, through collective bargaining, to do it."

Negotiations on teachers' salaries will be reopened each year, however. This year, Hammond teachers will receive 3 percent increases.

Financial Woes

Hammond, a district with 900 teachers and 14,000 students, is located in an industrial area severely affected by the decline of the steel industry. It was one of the first districts in the nation to explore site-based management through union contracts that allowed individual schools to deviate from the master contract.

The new contract is expected to bring a sense of stability to the district, which has run budget deficits since 1987. Last December, the district was unable to meet its payroll, and school employees were forced to borrow from their credit union until the district could borrow more money in January.

Many members of the teachers' union, which ratified the contract Jan. 29 by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent, were skeptical of the new arrangement, Mr. O'Rourke said. The district did not have the advantage of offering teachers substantially higher salaries to offset their concerns, as other districts that have adopted new reform-oriented teacher contracts have done.

The contract does, however, preserve an earlier agreement whereby the district covers all but $1 of each teacher's annual health-insurance premium.

It also calls for the formation of a joint district-union committee on short-term cost containment to review the district's current programs and identify areas to cut.

No More 'Posturing'?

The "living contract" approach offers a way out of the common scenario in which both sides "posture" during contract negotiations, according to John Stevens, president of the a.f.t.'s Union Leadership Institute.

Instead of haggling over a laundry list of items, the union and the district will negotiate as needed over issues considered to be truly important, he said.

Such an arrangement, he suggested, will enable educators to respond more quickly to issues that demand attention.

But he added that the Hammond approach should not be seen as eliminating the need for collective bargaining.

"This doesn't mean the union's concerns about salary, benefits, working conditions, and job security are going to go away," he said. "They're still there. This means greater involvement of union members in making the institution in which they work successful."

Susan Moore Johnson, an associate professor of administration, planning, and social policy at Harvard University's graduate school of education, said the Hammond contract is consistent with a trend toward negotiating labor-management issues in a "problem-solving," rather than adversarial, manner.

The success of the arrangement, she said, will depend on how often the contract is reopened. "Potentially, there is the opportunity for a lot of uncertainty if one side or the other chooses to reopen frequently," she said. "My assumption is that they assume that would be rare."

The district has several panels that are examining working conditions and school organization, and these might make recommendations on contract changes, Mr. O'Rourke, the union president, noted.

Robert G. Gluth, president of the school board, maintained that the contract "is not all that revolutionary."

"Normally, we'd have one- or two-year contracts, and mostly the only thing that would be renegotiated is wages," Mr. Gluth said. "But now if something comes up that is for the benefit of the students, we won't have to wait until the end of the contract" to act on it.

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