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Calif. Foundation Urges New Approach to Labor Negotiations

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A California foundation's efforts to improve labor-management relations in school districts throughout the state appears to be transforming the way many school and union leaders do business there.

Over the past few years, the California Foundation for Improvement of Employer-Employee Relations has worked to bring together school officials, board members, and union leaders in about 90 districts to learn a new approach to negotiating.

Its training program has saved districts legal costs involved in resolving disputes and has prepared them to find creative ways to bargain during a statewide financial crunch, supporters say.

The Sacramento-based foundation is the brainchild of the state's Public Employment Relations Board, which developed a training curriculum in 1989 with the help of the state's key players in education.

Although the board's initial efforts with a few districts seemed successful, political and financial hurdles led the state to spin off the program in 1991 by creating the separate, nonprofit foundation to administer the training, said Janet Walden, the foundation's president.

The group is funded with grants from the Stuart and William and Flora Hewlitt foundations and the fees that districts pay.

The number of teachers' strikes in the state has decreased since the foundation started, and some observers say that drop is a reflection of its influence.

In addition, other groups, including the California Teachers' Association, have started similar training programs.

The new approach "has been very effective by eliminating many possibilities of strikes and establishing a process both [labor and management] can understand,'' said Allan Petersdorf, the executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.

Cutting Costs

The training program used by the California Foundation for Improvement of Employer-Employee Relations typically incorporates mock bargaining sessions, team-building exercises, and other activities designed to make the participants re-examine assumptions about labor-management relations.

A three-day training session for 40 school officials and employees typically costs a district about $12,000, which participants often pay for with school and union funds and state reimbursements.

Although the program is costly, Ms. Walden said the training pays off over the long run because districts have fewer expenses related to worker grievances, disciplinary cases, and disputes that stall negotiations.

Officials from the Corona-Norco school district, for example, estimate that they have saved $725,000 since 1992, when a district and union team were trained.

While most districts also report improved relations after training, Ms. Walden acknowledges that there are potential pitfalls.

"Sometimes turnover can cripple an organization'' after district and union teams undergo training, she said. "Districts may get a superintendent with a different management style or a new agenda, or new board members are elected.''

'Never Peaceful'

Although it conducts a follow-up visit a few months after training, the foundation--which this spring is testing similar programs for school-based-management councils--encourages districts to continue testing their negotiation skills, especially after personnel changes in top positions.

The 50,000-student San Juan school district was one of the first in California to sign on for training.

Labor-management disputes there had ended in deadlock for years, district educators said. The bargaining teams often submitted to mediation or fact-finding, and, in one particularly tense year teachers went on strike.

"We had a very adversarial relationship,'' said Linda Gubman, the president of the local teachers' union.

The union and district now have a "living contract,'' which allows them to renegotiate whenever they choose, and a labor-management council meets periodically to discuss such non-negotiable issues as hiring policies.

The 225,000-member California Teachers' Association, however, recently ended its involvement with the foundation, whose board of directors had included union officials.

The C.T.A. "became very reticent at a certain point,'' one union observer said. "I think they're scared of losing some of their gains.''

The union now has its own training program for school and union officials, which is significantly less expensive than the foundation's program, according to Tommye Hutto, a C.T.A. spokeswoman.

"We're happy to see them move so far as to do their own training,'' Ms. Walden said. "We feel like our very existence has pulled in [groups] that were hesitant to embrace collaboration.''

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