High Risk/High Reward: The NYC Teacher Contract Negotiations Can Produce a Model for the Nation.

At a union meeting a teacher leaned over and whispered, “I hear we’re getting 4% retroactive.”

I replied, “Don’t get your hopes up … you may be disappointed.”

A new mayor, a new chancellor, why wouldn’t we expect a good contract? The problem: mayors have to deliver for the entire city, for taxpayers as well as teachers, a contract that is “praised” by the elites, the powerbrokers, the New York Times as well as endorsed by union members, a contract that is perceived as “fair” to all sides.

At a recent press conference Mayor de Blasio raised the issue of union contracts – every union contract in the city has expired – many expired three and four years ago – (the teacher union contract expired on 10/31/09) the mayor referred to the absence of contracts, with retroactive pay, as a “crisis.”

Union members, after years without contracts may have high expectations, unions cannot afford to unrealistically raise expectations of their members.

In days of yore the union collected hundreds of bargaining demands from members. At the Delegate Meeting to approve the demands a teacher asked the union president, Al Shanker,

“Al, how much would it cost if we got everything?”

Shanker stepped away from the microphone, seemed to be calculating, and moved back to the microphone, “I’d say a gold ball the size of Earth.”

These days the union only submits general demands, a 300-hundred member negotiating committee, members from across the spectrum of the union act as a “sounding board” for the union negotiators.

The Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) Fact-Finding Report will be released shortly, with a new mayor, a new chancellor and the Report in place serious negotiations can commence. The fact-finding reports in the past have created a framework for a contract agreement.

The PERB process assists school districts in the negotiations. Under state law, called the Triborough Doctrine, expired public employee contracts remain in place until the successor contract is approved. Teachers continue to receive step and longevity increases under the expired contracts and there is no pressure for the school district to engage in serious negotiations. PERB assigns a mediator if no progress is made, the mediator can declare an impasse and PERB assigns a fact-finding panel, arbitrators from a jointly approved list. The process has been highly successful in resolving labor disputes.

The panel receives evidence presented through the testimony of witnesses who are cross- examined by the other side, hundreds of pages of charts and graphs and data to buttress the testimony of the witnesses.

The two key principles are “pattern bargaining,” (what raises did similarly-situated unions receive) and “ability to pay,” (the financial situation of the school district).

In the last fact-finding the union argued that higher salaries in suburbs resulted in the exodus of New York City teachers as well as suburbs attracting the “best” candidates. The city argued that communities vote to approve budgets and in essence voters approve higher salaries and the proper “pattern” should be other large urban centers. The panel suggested that urban centers near New York City, i.e., Yonkers, White Plains, might be a comparison.

The union will point to a summer 2008 fact-finding panel between the MTA and the TWU at which the city agreed it had set aside 4% for upcoming contract negotiations and the city will point to the fall 2008 recession/meltdown that had dire consequences for the city. The union will point to the increasing fiscal health of the city. The city will point to 7,000 teacher layoffs in Bloomberg budgets that were restored by the City Council – arguing that dollars that could have gone for raises were used to save jobs. Increases in the suburbs over the last few years have been very small or non-existent, the union will argue the 2% state-imposed property tax cap does not apply to New York City.

The panel report will summarize all the positions and “suggest” rates for retroactive as well as for rates going forward.

Will the city agree to make the retroactive payments in one lump sum, or divide over a number of budget cycles? Will all of the retroactive be “pensionable,” or will some/all of the retroactive be “non-pensionable cash payments,” or some other configuration? It is unlikely that the city continues the Bloomberg position – “we cannot afford retroactive increases.”

The contracts will cost the city many hundreds of millions of dollars and one percent translates into tens of millions of dollars.

On the non-budgetary side of the contract the usual push-pull will occur – disputes around managerial prerogatives – in what areas do principals have total discretion and in what areas must they consult with the union, how do you define consult?

An issue that both sides want to change is the teacher evaluation plan, a plan imposed by the commissioner when the mayor sank the plan negotiated with the department.

The current plan requires too many lesson observations, both the union and the department agree and the methods for assessing student growth for non-state tested subjects – that’s 80% of all teachers – is obtuse, burdensome, and indefensible. The teacher evaluation plan is part of state law converted in commissioner regulation and whatever plan is negotiated must be approved by the commissioner. After year one of the plan only 1% of teachers in the state, outside of NYC, were found to be “ineffective.”

Critics of teacher contracts claim that contracts are filled with “rules” that impede a principal’s ability to effectively run a school, and, department regulations also stand in the way of creating programs and policies that will spur academic growth, hence, the need for charter schools.

Teachers complain that the contract, however flawed, protects teachers from abusive principals.

For twenty years the union and the department have flirted with a “thin” contract experiment. In the early nineties a principal and a chapter leader came to the union with a plan: exempt the school from seniority transfers, a teacher-led committee would select new teachers. The union accepted the plan, eventually negotiated it into the contract, it became the “School-Based Option Staffing and Personnel” section of the contract, subsequently changed to the Open Market system. The same principal and chapter leader asked the union to support a peer review teacher assessment plan – I believe it still exists in a few schools. (I have a copy!!)

Why not carve out schools, through an application process that can operate under a significantly pared down contract – operate under principles of collaboration.

There is a considerable research supporting collaboration at the school level. (See evidence here)

While the mayor and the union are not fans of merit pay the idea of a bonus to attract teachers into hard-to-staff certification areas, or, into schools in high poverty neighborhoods, or, create titles for teachers with expanded responsibilities with additional pay, usually called differentiated staffing could become an attractive option. Teachers in the Chancellor’s District received higher pay in exchange for a longer work day and year.

As soon as the non-binding fact-finding report is issued, it is a public report; the clock will begin to tick. The mayor wants to work with unions and needs unions to push his agenda in Albany and Washington and wants to show the world that effective local governments and unions are not contraindicated. For unions, Mayor de Blasio is that rare bird, a pro-union, progressive mayor; perhaps a model for the nation, to fail to negotiate a contract might doom public employee unions elsewhere.

It will require nimble craftsman on both sides of the table with very high stakes – for New York City and the nation.

UPDATE: The new NYC Budget Director, testifying in Albany, stated that the previous administration had no money put aside for retroactive increases and 1.25% going forward for annual increases.

NEWER UPDATE: Comparison of Teacher Salaries in New York State by district.

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4 responses to “High Risk/High Reward: The NYC Teacher Contract Negotiations Can Produce a Model for the Nation.

  1. The truth about “The Shanker-LIndsay” contract, was that the benefits we received were equal to what would have amounted to 2 renewal labor contracts. It was after that contract, that the City tried to tie all the municipal workers contracts into the same anniversary date, as each one following The Tcrs settlement tried to upstage the other in terms of benefits. I was serving in a JHS at the time, and was making about 9000 a year, and when the contract was settled, my salary went to 13OOO.

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  2. Eric Nadelstern

    Thx for remembering that the teachers and I at The International High School at Laguardia Community College first piloted the school staffing SBO; and then later, peer review. Neither would have possible without strong UFT support from HS VP John Soldini and his deputy Leo Casey. I remain extremely proud of both achievements.

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  3. Peter:

    I will repeat, the “City pattern” is the City pattern and arbitrators uphold it every time. True, there will need to be some imaginative payouts but non-pensionable bonuses is unacceptable and money for time is also.

    Mr Naldestern:

    It just goes to prove that “a stopped clock is right twice a day”. So you got this one right. How about all the damage you have done over the years?
    .Useless CFN’s
    Fair student funding
    ATR crisis
    Leadership Academy Principals
    Education on the cheap policy
    High priced consultants
    I can’t wait to see all your terrible policies changed in the next couple of years.

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  4. Pingback: deBlasio’s Education Plate is Full: PreK, Contracts, Co-Location, Charters and Let’s Not Forget Running a School System. | Ed In The Apple

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