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District, Union in Md. Experiment With Innovative Accord

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Rockville, Md.

Mark Simon can easily boast of his credentials as a traditional trade unionist. As the head of the Montgomery County Education Association in the late 1980s, he oversaw successful negotiations for a more than 50 percent pay increase for teachers.

But these days, the president of the 8,000-member National Education Association affiliate in Maryland spends much of his time assuring his own members that the district's administration, which, he maintains, has long favored a top-down management approach, honestly wants to give teachers the authority they deserve as professionals.

The new three-year contract his union ratified in February gives teachers a substantially greater say in how their schools are run and input into how teacher evaluation policies are crafted. More importantly, Mr. Simon believes, the agreement will prompt a "culture change" in the district, allowing teachers and administrators more opportunity to work together to find ways of improving their schools' performance.

The contract has helped elevate the local, now the third largest NEA affiliate in the country, to the ranks of districts known nationally for seeking innovative partnerships between management and labor. It's also drawn enthusiastic praise from NEA President Bob Chase, who this winter showcased the agreement at a press conference marking the anniversary of his now-famous speech calling for a "new unionism." ("Seeking 'Reinvention' of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities," Feb. 12, 1997.)

"This is the best union contract I've ever seen negotiated as it relates to a holistic approach to education reform," said Doug Tuthill, a former president of the NEA affiliate in Pinellas County, Fla., who helped draft some of the earliest papers outlining the new unionism. "It says 'all kids will succeed, and we're committed to making sure that happens.' "

But much like the larger call for a new unionism, the contract also has left some members skeptical about the promised change in culture. Some are also wary of the new roles they're being called on to play.

"It's not going to bring about change overnight," Mr. Simon conceded at a recent meeting here of about 15 Montgomery County teachers. "But at least the structure will be oriented toward giving you and me the credit we deserve as professional educators of children."

Untraditional Contract

The MCEA began jettisoning conventional wisdom even while planning contract talks. Negotiators used a technique called interest-based bargaining, in which both sides brainstorm around issues of common concern, rather than make a series of offers and counteroffers. They also brought in consultants to conduct conflict-management training.

As a result, the union and the district reached agreement without mediation for the first time in the history of the 125,500-student district, located in suburban Washington.

Negotiators believe a new philosophy is reflected in the agreement itself. It starts with a declaration that "all of us have the responsibility to preserve the right of all students to succeed."

Although addressing the usual employee-protection issues, the accord first outlines seven "core concepts" for improvement, including giving teachers authority over decisions affecting teaching and learning in their schools; providing a coordinated program of rigorous staff development; and holding teachers, schools, and the district as a whole accountable for improvement.

The contract also stresses the need to train staff members in the use of such educational data as test scores, attendance and suspension rates, and gauges of staff and student satisfaction to measure improvement.

"When you look at it, it doesn't read like a traditional contract," said Randy Changuris, a teacher who has helped bargain several contracts in Montgomery County.

'The Big Issues'

The linchpins of the agreement are the new governing bodies it will set up at all the district's 183 schools within three years.

These quality-management councils will include the principal and staff-selected representatives. They'll have authority to set a wide range of school policies--from curriculum to hiring practices. The contract says they will govern by consensus, but also that if a principal votes against a council's majority, the council can appeal to a yet-to-be designated committee outside the school made up of union members and administrators.

Mr. Simon argues that the councils go further than past efforts at decentralizing decisionmaking. Unlike the new councils, which are written into the contract, Montgomery County's other policies on site-based management have neither guaranteed teachers the right to elect their own representatives nor given school committees the option of appealing a principal's veto, he said.

"The big issues that affect quality will be the focus of this, not the how-much-do-we-spend-on-toilet-paper questions," Mr. Simon said.

The change could rub some principals the wrong way.

"By and large, we have some administrators who see it right away as a great opportunity and a way to legitimize what they've already done," said Steve Seleznow, the district's associate superintendent for administration. "But if you believe in authoritarian control, in a top-down bureaucracy, or that all knowledge flows from the principal, then you're not going to like this contract."

Member Concerns

The agreement has sparked criticism from a few school leaders and some union members. The school board approved the contract 5-2, while about 75 percent of voting teachers favored the pact. Some parents voiced concern that the contract doesn't say the councils must include them.

"Our site-based-decisionmaking policy is very clear that all stake-holders must be involved as full partners, and the current MCEA contract doesn't do that," said Mona Signer, a board member who voted against the agreement.

Ms. Signer also argues that despite its emphasis on accountability, the contract doesn't include real consequences should the councils or their members fail to achieve their goals. Under the agreement, if the superintendent's office is critical of council members' decisions, it can put a letter in their personnel files. Ms. Signer contends that's not enough.

"The more important thing is that what gets triggered is a dialogue so the council has to explain itself," said Mr. Simon, adding that it is the councils, not individuals, who will be held accountable for decisions.

Many of the concerns Mr. Simon, the MCEA president, has found himself answering in recent weeks are coming from his own members.

"I'm not sure people haven't been taken a little off guard," said Alice McGinnis, an elementary school music teacher who voted for the contract, which narrowly passed in her building. "We knew something different was being negotiated, but I don't think anybody fathomed this much. There's a sense in which we're playing catch up, and everyone is nervous about the nuts and bolts."

Since the February vote, union leaders have been visiting small groups of teachers to make sure they understand how the contract is supposed to work. Repeatedly, teachers ask how they'll find time to participate on councils, and what will happen if their principals don't cooperate.

John G. Wehrle, a high school history teacher, believes the union should have concentrated more on getting a better compensation package, rather than on drafting an agreement that gives teachers new management responsibilities. The pact includes a modest 2.4 percent salary increase.

"The [quality-management council] concept is a nice idea, but it's just a secondary issue," said Mr. Wehrle, a 30-year veteran of the district who voted against the contract. "Unions are a way to protect people who don't have any other protection from management's whim."

Mr. Simon said he expected such a mix of enthusiasm, confusion, and concern. And he acknowledges that translating the new contract into an attitude change in a district that employs more than 15,000 people won't be easy.

"Negotiating the contract was the easy part," Mr. Simon said. "It's one thing to put things into a document. It's another to actually bring about a culture change away from a command-and-control management system."

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