DISTRICT NEGOTIATIONS PROCESSES
A couple weeks ago, I introduced some information about the state of the employee contract negotiations process. In that article, I did an overview of the process and shared some broad background information. I would like to return to the topic of contract negotiations this week with a little more detail.
All contracts and employment agreements in the district expired on June 30, 2017, and were subject to renewal. The process of renewing employee master contracts or agreements is often referred to as the negotiations process.
FORMAL BARGAINING UNITS
Within the ROCORI School District, three employee groups are recognized through the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) as formal bargaining units. The three employee groups are the ROCORI teachers, paraprofessionals and principals.
These units go through a more formal negotiation process with the School Board. Specific members of the bargaining unit are designated as the exclusive representatives of all the members within the group. For the teachers, there is a team of four teachers serving as the exclusive representative. For the principals, there are typically two representatives. For the paraprofessionals, there are usually four members of the union along with a designated representative from the union.
The School Board negotiations team meets with the exclusive representatives. In the ROCORI District, the Board team consists of three board members, the superintendent, and the business manager.
OTHER EMPLOYEE GROUPS
Other groups of employees are not formal bargaining units as defined in law. These employees have “terms and conditions” of employment rather than a master contract or master agreement. These employees include our classified, non-licensed group (cooks, custodians, cleaners, secretaries, health technicians, and a few other employees) along with our program managers and individual administrators.
Because these groups of employees are not formally recognized in statute, the district is not required to formally “negotiate” with the groups. In reality, the district can simply set the terms and conditions of employment, but that is not how the district has traditionally proceeded.
The School Board likes to use a process where these employees are given opportunity to meet with the District Negotiations team to share issues and concerns. Once the Board negotiators hear the issues and concerns, the Board team develops the employment terms and conditions.
The difference from the formal bargaining units is that the School Board does not need to get the group’s approval for the terms and conditions. They do not require ratification or agreement from the employees. The School Board has the authority to set the terms.
TEACHER NEGOTIATIONS PROCESS
The process started by opening negotiations with the teacher association. The first meetings occurred as the 2016-2017 school year finished. Discussions about the contract have continued through the fall and into the winter season.
Because the teachers represent the largest group of employees, it is often important for the School Board to reach an agreement with this group to help set the parameters that will be applied to other employee groups.
After meeting many times during the summer and fall, the district and teachers have gone into mediation to try to reach an agreement. Mediation simply means that a representative from the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS) has been assigned to try to help both teams bring the final items into agreement. Two mediation sessions have been held and another date with the mediator has been set for March 5.
The teacher association and district have reached tentative agreements on many language issues. At present, the teams are trying to reach agreement on financial terms. Although there are potentially a number of items having financial implications (leave days, contributions to savings accounts, eligibility for certain benefits, etc.), much of the discussion has boiled down to the core issues of salary improvements and insurance benefits.
The question ultimately involves the amount of increase or improvement the Board can offer compared to what the bargaining unit is asking. A settlement has not been reached because the two teams have not come to an agreement on the amounts.
Because an agreement has not yet been reached, Education Minnesota—ROCORI recently notified the District that it was asking its members to “work to hours.” This strategy is sometimes also called “work to rule” or “work to contract.” Work to hours was initiated by EM-R on Monday, January 29.
Essentially, the strategy expects the members to complete only the contracted work time and contracted work duties. In our district, the contracted hours begin at 7:30 a.m. daily and conclude at 3:30 p.m. Members are asked not to volunteer for things or to complete tasks outside of contracted duties.
Examples provided in the notification to the district including a withdrawal from substituting during prep times, not accepting assignments as officials, scorekeepers, or ticket-taking at games/events, and similar actions.
Some of the ideas behind the strategy include bringing the members of the group into unity, causing some (minimal) disruptions to normal school activities, and demonstrating the value of work of the members. The greatest goal, however, is to use the strategy to encourage the School Board to increase its offer in order to settle the contract.
While we understand this strategy on the part of the union, district leaders are working hard to minimize the effects on students. The Activities Department, for example, has worked to recruit community members, former athletes, and others to help fill the roles like officiating or scorekeepers. Our building offices are looking at other ways to secure substitutes so the student programming is not disrupted.
Both the District and Education Minnesota-ROCORI recognize that all of the negotiations issues are to be removed from the classroom. None of the process is supposed to filter into the classroom.
Negotiations with other employee groups have started to unfold as well. Meetings have occurred between the District and principals, paraprofessionals, and individual administrators. The School District team still needs to meet with the classified employees and the program managers to hear their ideas and concerns but the process is underway with nearly all employee groups.
The District team is very close to a final agreement with the principals. A meeting was held on January 18 and most of the details to a new agreement were finalized. There is one language item to put the final words in place, but much of the work is complete.
The process with paraprofessionals has just started. The School Board members have met three times with the paraprofessional team. The last meeting was on January 23. There are not many language items and most that were on the table have already been resolved. As with the teachers, the two big financial issues will be insurance and salary.
The School Board team has met with individual administrators to hear their thoughts, ideas and concerns about their employment agreements. The District Team is working on proposals for the administrators. When the exchange is complete, those agreements will be finalized.
Across all the employee groups, the School Board has expressed a few core goals. The Board has a desire to reach settlements which provide equity for all of the members of the unit. Often, this means an emphasis on salary rather than benefits because salary directly affects every member of the group as every employee is paid.
Insurance, on the other hand, benefits only those who choose the insurance. Differences between single and family insurance contributions also make a difference in who receives, and the scope of, the benefit. Savings plans, like a 403b plan, benefit only those who are eligible to receive the benefit and who actually choose to make a personal contribution.
A second goal has been to keep insurance contributions reasonable and comparable to private sector situations. The ROCORI District has had a long history of providing good, quality insurance benefits but these benefits must also be sustainable. The goal has been to move employees toward deductible plans that are neither too high or too low, while also having a balance to encourage employee engagement in medical choices and decisions.
The School Board, as it examines all of the agreements, works hard to keep the settlements equitable across groups. This is important for issues of Pay Equity principles but also to treat all employees respectfully.
The overall goal for the School Board is to be good stewards of the resources of the District. The investment in the employee contracts has to be comparable to our neighboring districts and competitive in the area, but it must also be balanced by affordability.
The negotiations process is not easy. Each employee group has particular needs, interests and desires. The District has an obligation to be fiscally responsible and to serve the best interests of the community and to protect opportunities for students.
The district financial resources are limited. The state legislature “improved” school funding in the last session, but at a rate of 2% per year—if enrollment stays stable. Growing enrollment can provide increased resources, but stable enrollment does not increase district resources. Declining enrollment requires reductions in programs and dramatically limits what can be put into employment agreements.
Excessive settlements in employee contracts will result in budget and financial reductions. Because the amount of revenue coming to the district is limited by legislative support and enrollment, large contract settlements can only be “covered” by reducing programs, positions, and opportunities.
The District team desires to treat all employee groups as fairly and appropriately as possible given the resources available. All district employee group contracts are open as of last June and subject to the negotiations processes that apply.