Dispute Over Pay Roils Contract Talks in Rochester

By Ann Bradley — September 05, 1990 7 min read

The celebrated atmosphere of labor-management cooperation in Rochester, N.Y., was showing signs of strain last week as both sides prepared to continue bargaining this week on a teaching contract that is expected to include unprecedented mechanisms to reward and penalize teachers.

Officials of both the school district and the Rochester Teachers Association have said they are committed to using the new contract to expand on Rochester’s widely publicized school-reform initiatives.

But the attempt to refine the 1987 agreement that restructured the city’s teaching force has been complicated of late by a more traditional concern--teachers’ salaries.

The district has yet to make a salary offer to the teachers’ union, which has proposed a one-year contract giving teachers an 8.5 percent raise in addition to increases pegged to experience.

The district’s silence on the issue prompted the union to warn last week that it may withdraw its support for reform efforts if progress is not made on a new contract by the middle of the month.

Several members of the Rochester school board said last week that the community is demanding results for the large salary increases paid to teachers under the last contract, which enabled veteran teachers in positions of responsibility to earn as much as $70,000 a year.

Until the details of the new “accountability” provisions are hammered out, the board members said, it will not be clear how much teachers deserve to be paid.

“It’s important for the community’s confidence that, within this contract, the accountability issue be addressed head on,” said Catherine Spoto, president of the school board, “and that the salary increase be at a level that people consider as fair.”

Adam Urbanski, president of the teachers’ union, said the district’s handling of the negotiations had raised some doubt about its commitment to a working partnership with the union.

“The relationship was not threatened,” Mr. Urbanski added. “It ran into serious problems, but it looks like it’s going to be salvaged.”

The 1987 contract, which created a career-ladder system for teachers and school-based planning teams in each building, was much less detailed than the new contract is expected to be.

Many of the programs developed in the wake of the 1987 contract were the result of a series of “agreements to agree” reached by Mr. Urbanski and Peter McWalters, Rochester’s superintendent of schools.

But such an approach is unlikely to satisfy teachers and community members at this point in the city’s efforts to improve its schools, said Adam Kaufman, the district’s general counsel and its chief negotiator.

“In this contract, both [sides] recognize that ... it’s going to have to be a little more specific,” he said.

“In some ways, it’s a more difficult round of bargaining,” Mr. Kaufman added, “because once we’ve committed ourselves to using the agreement as a vehicle for reform, it makes the issues much more complex, particuwhen you’re trying to redefine, in a bilateral agreement, a lot of relationships in the district.”

The foundation for the negotiations on the new contract is a report by a task force made up of representatives of the district and the teachers’ union.

With the assistance of the National Center on Education and the Economy, an education-policy center in Rochester, members of the task force spent four months discussing how to create a system that would hold teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the larger Rochester community accountable for creating a system that ensures each student’s academic success.

Their recommendations were presented to the negotiating committee on Aug. 13, a month later than originally scheduled. Though the report’s recommendations have been endorsed by both Mr. McWalters and Mr. Urbanski, its late release has contributed to the strained atmosphere surrounding the negotiations, district officials said.

The report touches on virtually all aspects of the school system. While some of its recommendations are expected to be incorporated into the teachers’ contract, others would have to become school-board policy or be accomplished at the district’s central office.

Still other recommendations are more general and thus may be more difficult to bring about, said Sonia Hernandez, a senior associate at the national center who guided the task force’s work.

“This is not a teacher discussion, and it is not a district discussion. It is communitywide discussion,” Ms. Hernandez said. “It’s very soft in the sense of how do you hold parents accountable, or the business community. But we have a very strong commitment in this city.”

For teachers, the report recommends building on the existing contract to strengthen the procedures for evaluating teachers and for intervening if they are not performing their jobs well.

For example, it calls for withholding salary increases for teachers who are accepted into the district’s existing intervention program. Teachers who refused to participate in the program would be suspended without pay, and the district would begin dismissal procedings against them.

A new system for evaluating teachers would form the basis for such decisions. Rochester has been working to design new, performance-oriented teacher assessments that are expected to be in use by next school year.

The new assessments also would determine teachers’ placement on the city’s four-step career ladder, whether they would receive salary increases, and what opportunities for staff development they would have, the report says.

And the expectations for teachers would be contained in a professional “code of ethics” modeled after the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is developing a system for certifying accomplished teachers.

The sanctions recommended in the accountability report would also be balanced by creating a better environment for teaching and learnhe report envisions. It calls for reducing class sizes, creating intimate units of students within large schools, greater investment in staff development, and expanding Rochester’s shared-decisionmaking process to give local school councils more authority over “conditions that affect student learning.”

“This report says to educators, ‘We will give you more and better tools and expect better results,”’ Mr. Urbanski said. “The overwhelming majority of teachers are reacting positively.”

The strongest criticism of the accountability recommendations, he added, has come from the union’s “middle managers,” who are suspicious of changing traditional practices.

The report recommends that decisions made by the school councils be binding on the school’s staff. The councils also should have the authority to recommend both teachers and administrators for intervention, it says.

Entire schools also would be held accountable for their progress in meeting improvement goals set by the schools and formally negotiated with the district. The plans would take into account such factors as student performance, teacher- and student-attendance rates, dropout and school-completion rates, and school climate.

Schools that failed to meet their agreed-upon goals would be subject to intervention by a special team that would conduct an assessment and recommend corrective action. The report says that the teams should have the authority to recommend that teachers and administrators be transferred; that the school’s planning team be “decertified"; or that the school be closed, and its entire program reconstituted.

The recommendations concerning administrators must be negotiated with the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester,represents the city’s administrators.

Finally, the task force recommended that Rochester phase out its use of the standardized, norm-referenced California Achievement Test this school year. Instead, the district should develop a new system of measuring students’ progress in “exit assessments” given at the end of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12, the report says.

At each grade level, students would be asked to demonstrate competency in communication, numeracy, problem-solving, critical and creative thinking, “multiculturality,” capacity for further learning, democratic values, teamwork, and integration of knowledge.

Some of the guidelines for developing the assessments will be established through another project of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which has been involved in an effort to determine what it is that Rochester residents want their students to know and be able to do.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1990 edition of Education Week as Dispute Over Pay Roils Contract Talks in Rochester