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A Living Contract

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The teachers and district leaders in Hammond, Ind., are among a growing number of educators who are trying to put this strategy to the test. Earlier this year, the local teachers' union and the city school district agreed to a 12-year "living contract,'' which they hope will foster cooperation and give educators more flexibility in responding to schools' needs.

The long-term contract, which runs through December 2001, is the first of its kind in the nation, according to the American Federation of Teachers. It represents an attempt by the union and the district to break free of conventional collective bargaining and form a "partnership'' to encourage school improvement, says 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 says. "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 examine ways to reorganize the school system, which already has a reputation as a pioneer in reform. The district was one of the first in the nation to explore school-based management through union contracts that allow individual schools to deviate from the master contract.

The new living contract allows either the union or the district to seek changes in the 12-year agreement at any time, but specifies that 60 days' notice must be given. Representatives from both sides would negotiate any proposed changes and submit the resulting agreement to the union for ratification.

"We're not locked into any restrictive work rule beyond 60 days,'' O'Rourke explains. "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.

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. 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.

According to O'Rourke, many members of the local union were skeptical of the new arrangement; only 61 percent voted in favor of ratification. Unlike many other districts that have recently adopted reform-oriented teacher contracts, Hammond was not fiscally able to offset teachers' concerns by offering them substantially higher salaries. The contract does, however, preserve an earlier agreement whereby the district covers all but $1 of each teacher's annual healthinsurance premium. It also establishes a joint district-union committee on cost containment that will review the district's current programs and identify areas to cut.

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

"Normally,'' says Gluth, "we'd have one- or two-year contracts, and mostly the only thing that would be renegotiated is wages.''

But according to John Stevens, director of the AFT's Union Leadership Institute, the "living contract'' approach offers a dramatic change from the common scenario in which both sides "posture'' during contract negotiations. Instead of haggling bitterly over a long laundry list, he says, the union and the district will negotiate as needed over issues considered to be truly important.

Such an arrangement, he suggests, will also enable educators to respond more quickly to issues that demand attention. "This doesn't mean the union's concerns about salary, benefits, working conditions, and job security are going to go away,'' he adds. "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 at Harvard University's graduate school of education, says the Hammond pact is consistent with a trend toward negotiating labor-management issues in a "problem-solving,'' rather than adversarial, manner.

The success of the arrangement, she asserts, 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 says. "My assumption is that they assume that would be rare.''

--Ann Bradley, Education Week

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