Thursday, April 15, 2010

MPS labor relations and the new superintendent

Over the past few days, four former MPS superintendents have met in two public forums to share the lessons they have learned about running the state's largest school district. In both forums a recurring theme was Howard Fuller's contention that: "I was in charge, but I wasn't in control."

His meaning, with which the other former superintendents generally agreed, was that the labor contracts with the teachers and principals unions constrained his ability to make dramatic changes in the district. The implication was that the district's new superintendent, Gregory Thornton, would find it similarly difficult to improve outcomes under the current labor-management dynamic.

Whether this perception is accurate or not with regard to MPS, a new, still tentative, labor agreement in the Washington D.C. school district provides an example of a superintendent turning labor negotiating on its head. The D.C. superintendent, Michelle Rhee, has received much national press over the past two years as she pushed for a new paradigm of how, and how much, teachers are paid in D.C.

Her original idea was to phase out tenure and the traditional salary step-increases by phasing in a new system that would determine salary increases by performance and would have teachers give up tenure for a year. In exchange for the uncertainty that would bring teachers as they planned their futures, she proposed to nearly double the base salary.

While the apparent end-point of the D.C. negotiations bears little resemblance to that starting point, the new contract does reflect some remarkable changes to the relationship between the district and its teachers. For example:

  • Teachers who qualify can opt to link their pay to performance. How their performance will be measured is yet to be determined, but the current language says it will not be limited to just student test scores.

  • The district will be able to adjust the size of its workforce through school closings or district-wide layoffs. Teachers who are affected by these workforce reductions, and who perform well under the evaluation system, could be eligible for either a $25,000 severance payment, retirement with full benefits (for those teachers with more than 20 years in the district), or a salaried year of placement services to help find a job elsewhere.

  • Base salaries increase by 20% over the five years of the contract (retroactive to October 2007); however, the higher price tag will not pinch taxpayers for now. Almost $65 million in private donations from the Broad Foundation, the Arnold Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation will cover the costs of the increased base salaries, as well as the performance pay.
Neither the superintendent nor the union got all they wanted nor gave up as much as was asked of them, and some issues remain unresolved, including who will cover the costs once the grant funds run out in 2012. But the D.C. experience shows that determined leadership by a superintendent can bring new issues to the bargaining table. D.C.'s two years of very public and very contentious negotiations also show, however, that the process is likely to be quite slow and painful.

The debate in Milwaukee has lately focused on mayoral control and the powers of the state superintendent of public instruction, but this week's forums raise the possibility that the issue most likely to affect the new MPS superintendent's ability to implement a reform agenda will be his relationship with the teachers and principals unions. Will Gregory Thornton make waves or smooth out wrinkles?

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