The Last Word September 2012

By C. Ed Massey

Labor relations can be complicated and controversial jobs for school board members. Many of us have been through hours or days of negotiations. Even when both sides agree fundamentally on many issues, the lack of funding for school districts impairs the process.

Making this process even more complex, we are now seeing an ongoing interest in revamping teacher evaluations and more pressure on teachers unions and school boards to include a measure of student performance in their evaluations and tenure plans. While some welcome this concept of accountability, many fear it.

In late May, I attended the U.S. Department of Education’s second Labor Management Conference, held in Cincinnati. This invitation-only conference was designed for participants to share innovative ideas and successful policies that strengthen the teaching profession. NSBA was a partner, along with several other education associations and teachers unions. Board members, superintendents, teacher representatives, and members from the state and federal departments of education also attended.

This event made some strides in allowing school districts the opportunity to collaborate and learn from each others’ successes (and mistakes). Many participants showed strategies and programs that enhanced their curriculums and led to better student opportunities and success. But the districts that most needed to learn from these firsthand stories were not invited. The challenge we now face is how to spread the successes of these participating districts to other districts that need help, and how a diverse range of school districts can replicate these innovative ideas.

While I attended the conference as the NSBA president, I sat with my local district team. Our school board has for years worked diligently to build a relationship based on trust, accountability, and respect with the Boone County Education Association (BCEA). Most recently, this relationship came into play when the union chose to forgo raises instead of facing more teacher layoffs, which maintained teacher/student ratios -- a key to academic achievement. Because of our strong relationship, BCEA members know our financial status. They also know our board supports their efforts. The board includes the union representative in all discussions related to teacher income, performance, expectations, and student performance. We also built a program where coaches work with teachers of all skill levels.

The participating school districts and teachers’ associations shared stories of similar success. We had many engaging discussions on ways we could work together to improve student achievement, and all the participants seemed to be fully engaged in the process. When all team participants are involved, the likelihood of success increases dramatically. But as all districts are different, the strategies must be adapted to the local environment. Unfortunately, districts that most need assistance with collaboration and capacity were absent from this event. Therefore, the missing element was how to re-create these stories of success in those districts that are failing.

The U.S. Department of Education should use these ideas and success stories to create a “clearinghouse” of the best practices between districts and associations, allowing districts that need help to collaborate with those that have found success. By working together and not competing against one another, we can succeed, and when a district succeeds, all of public education benefits.

One thing is certain: What works in one district or one state may not work in another. Each district must explore what unique attributes best suit its individual needs. I hope this conference will be a first step toward not only better management practices but also easing some of the inherent tensions in labor/management relations.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said that, if districts are making their mark, then the federal government should get out of the way. The government should only intervene on behalf of those districts that have succumbed to repetitive failure. As advocates of public education, we owe a duty to help those districts succeed on behalf of the children they serve. If we are going to succeed as districts, as states, and as a nation, we must work towards greater educational initiatives and opportunities for America’s children, and we must all collaborate around stories of success.

Children do not determine the district they are born into. They simply respond to the environment in which they are placed. We must make every educational environment a welcoming place, and having a well-qualified teaching force is the foundation for doing that.

C. Ed Massey (cemassey@nkylawyers.com) is the 2012-13 president of NSBA and a member of Kentucky’s Boone County Board of Education.