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Establishing the district bargaining team

Collective bargaining has a profound impact on education programs provided through school districts, ESDs and community colleges. Employee contracts are binding agreements that establish salaries, benefits, employment conditions and other terms - all adding up to over 80 percent of the organization’s budget. Because the process requires a lot of time for research, analysis, preparation, and “at the table” bargaining, who should be on your team?

Ask the following questions when creating your team: 

Q. Should school board members be on the bargaining team?

A. Yes! School board members can provide insight into the direction and the goals of the board and the impacts of proposed language. Further, board members can report the district’s position and goals back to the community and to other board members. Board members provide important direction, parameters, and perspective in the negotiations process. 

Q. Should the full board be on the team?

A. No. While it is critical to get economic parameters and bargaining goals from the full board and to keep the board informed, the full board should not be on the team. During the bargaining process a number of ideas and proposals will be discussed and some will be tentatively agreed to by the parties. Once negotiations are completed, the tentative agreements are taken back to the full constituency of the respective parties for ratification. If a quorum of the board is on the team or in the audience, the opportunity for ratification maybe eliminated.

Q. What role should administrators play in negotiations?

A. An administrator is often selected to be on the bargaining team. Superintendents are usually, but not always on the team. Superintendents often serve as the chief spokesperson for the district. Typically building administrator roles are limited to providing the team with departmental or curriculum expertise. They can provide valuable insights into the practicality and feasibility of proposals and should always be consulted and be on the team.

Q. Should the superintendent be on the bargaining team?

A. The answer depends on several factors. First, is the superintendent the best source of personnel, operational, or financial expertise? In that case, yes. However, he or she could also serve as an information resource in caucus as opposed to sitting at the table. If relationships between the superintendent and union are strained, it may be best to not have the superintendent at the table. Either way, the superintendent’s involvement is needed.

Q. Do we need a “spokesperson”?

A. Usually. The bargaining model used will impact the district’s decision to have a chief spokesperson. For example, in an interest-based or collaborative model all participants are encouraged to speak. However, in traditional negotiations, a chief spokesperson is key. If a district speaks with multiple voices, it could find itself having agreed to multiple proposals, none of which may reflect the district’s goals or the students’ interests.

Q. Who should deal with the media?

A. It is critical that only ONE person be designated to handle requests from the media. This person may be the chief spokesperson, the superintendent, or the district’s public relations professional. The entire team should be told who the media contact is and directed to forward all requests for comment to that person.

Q. How many people should be on the bargaining team?

A. There is no set standard number. However, the district should ensure that the team is balanced and has appropriate expertise to be effective. It is very frustrating if the team is unable to answer questions or move forward with negotiations due to lack of sufficient knowledge. The expertise of the team should include:

  • A local/community representative. Someone who can represent the community. Typically, this role is served by a board member.
  • Departmental/curriculum expertise. Someone who understands the educational program and needs at an operations level.
  • Personnel expertise. It is important to have someone who is familiar with the law, current practices, policies, and practical implications. This role is often filled by the district personnel director, superintendent, or hired consultant/negotiator.
  • Financial expertise. At some point, the negotiations will be reduced to dollars and cents. It is critical to have someone who can effectively and accurately crunch the numbers to determine costs and feasibility for the team.
  • Data support. The team will need data on leave usage, insurance packages and costs, schedules, past policies, etc. Someone on the team should know where and how to get the data necessary to make decisions and to evaluate proposals.
  • Note taker. It is essential to take good notes during bargaining. This can be a very difficult task for the spokesperson or other team members who are actively engaged in negotiations. It is helpful to have another person who is dedicated to note taking.
  • Historian. Frequently, the topic of current negotiations is the past. Someone who has some history and knowledge of the prior workings of the district, past negotiations, and tried processes should be on the team to provide the historical perspective.
  • News media relations. The local media is often interested in district labor relations. An effective media campaign can help mobilize community support and lead to quicker and more effective settlements. The district should have someone who is familiar with the media and who is able to effectively communicate the district’s message. This role is often served by the chief negotiator or district public relations professional.
  • Negotiator/spokesperson. Someone will need to serve in the role of team spokesperson and have knowledge and experience in the negotiations process. This person should not be easily intimidated, must be articulate, intelligent, patient, firm and polite. This role is typically served by the superintendent, district labor relations professional, or hired consultant.

Frequently more than one of these roles is held by one person. For example, the superintendent may have the personnel, curriculum, and media expertise as well as serve as the chief spokesperson. In other circumstances each of these roles will be fulfilled by a different individual.

Q. Do we need to hire a professional negotiator?

A. The answer depends on several factors. Consider these questions:

  • Will the union be using an outside professional?
  • Does the district have the requisite expertise to serve in the roles above?
  • Does the district team, without a professional, have experience in negotiations?
  • What bargaining model is being employed in negotiations (traditional, interest-based, etc.)?
  • What is the relationship between the parties?
  • Is there someone on the district team who is comfortable serving in the role of negotiator?

The answers to these questions should help the district determine if a professional negotiator is needed and in what capacity that person needs to serve. If the union will have an outside negotiator at the table, the district should strongly consider having a professional negotiator to level the playing field. However, if relationships between the two parties are good and the union will not have an outside negotiator at the table, the district may want to negotiate without a professional at the table and just seek advice from professionals as needed. Similarly, if team members have extensive background and experience in negotiations, especially in education, a professional may not be necessary. If relationships are sour from the start, a professional may serve in the critical role of the “lightning rod”, absorbing much of the hostility generated during bargaining. If the parties are engaged in an interest-based process, a professional “negotiator” may not be advantageous, however, a professional advisor or facilitator may be essential. The district may have an individual with the expertise and knowledge to conduct negotiations without an outside professional, but it is important to consider if this person can serve as chief spokesperson. If this person is not capable dealing with conflict or is not trusted by the other party, use a professional negotiator.

Q. What should the district look for in a professional negotiator?

A. Look for these qualities:

  • Working knowledge of public education and the educational process.
  • Knowledge of public collective bargaining statutes and procedures.
  • In-depth understanding of school finance, budgetary procedures and revenue sources.
  • Experience in negotiations with teacher, classified and wall-to-wall bargaining units.
  • Experience with traditional and interest-based bargaining methods.
  • Ability to develop and articulate district positions effectively and convincingly.
  • Practical and effective use of conflict resolution skills.
  • Effective communication skills.
  • Ability to develop strategy for using the media.
  • Not easily intimidated.
  • Trustworthy.
  • Patience.
  • Intelligence.
  • Good organizational skills.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Ability to be discrete.
  • Available.

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