Guest Commentary

By ending collective-bargaining negotiations, the TUSD board has created an adversarial relationship with teachers

Arizona State Superintendent of Instruction John Huppenthal recently ruled that an investigation that he commissioned was flawed, and that the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program was out of compliance with state education laws.

His enigmatic decision is not the subject of this piece. In the furor surrounding what I saw as a forgone conclusion, a serious issue with enormous ramifications for our community went virtually unnoticed: the suspension of negotiations and the imposition of contracts on two of the four bargaining units in TUSD.

At the risk of chasing away potential readers, let me start by saying: I am a teacher, and I have been one for nearly 30 of my 60 years on Earth, so please allow me some pedantic moments.

TUSD has a long-standing tradition of collective bargaining. Negotiations followed a common procedure as each contract expired: Initially, teams were chosen by each participant, and opening proposals were developed. The two sides met, exchanged proposals, and discussed them until an agreement was reached. Signing off on agreed-upon proposals ensured that they would be taken to the membership of the association with a recommendation for acceptance. It also ensured that the administration would respond to them in a responsible manner. Finally, the membership of the Tucson Education Association (TEA), thousands of employees of TUSD, voted to ratify the agreement or to reject it.

By abrogating the current contract talks, Dr. John Pedicone and TUSD have not only bypassed two of the three steps in the process; they have re-established our relationship as US and THEM. Having been on four negotiation teams in 21 years with this district, I can say that on all of them, we worked diligently to move from the acrimonious style of traditional adversarial negotiations toward the more-effective style of interest-based bargaining. In one act by the TUSD governing board, all efforts in that direction have been nullified. Instead of working together to find solutions that are in the best interests of all concerned, TUSD has unilaterally imposed solutions created only by their administration, without concern for what their employees want to contribute to the process.

Then there is the matter of money. The district proposal offered a 3 percent increase in salary. Of the four bargaining units, two—representing principals and administrative professionals—were willing to sign off on a contract that included a 3 percent increase. The other two units, AFSCME (representing blue-collar workers) and the TEA (representing teachers and white-collar workers), were still negotiating.

Why? Simply stated, it is a matter of finance. The two groups that settled will see a slight increase in their salary, something that's welcome after three years of losing money.

The other two groups have more problematic decisions. Included in the consideration for the TEA is the fact that increases in retirement-system and health-insurance contributions will impact the increase. Most teachers will see the 3 percent raise as a wash; they will make about the same as last year. New teachers will lose a few dollars per paycheck. The real impact for the TEA—because we bargain for white-collar and food-service groups, too—will fall on the lowest-paid individuals. They will see a significant decrease in their take-home pay. This is one reason negotiations were continued.

Then there is the question of money. No, I am not stuttering.

Public schools are funded based on enrollment. For years, we have been told, "There is no money; don't even discuss money." Yet now there is money? Where did it come from? The board has already committed to sponsor full-day kindergarten again. This is a great thing, but represents a considerable investment, about $4 million for a district that has lost enrollment for the last several years.

For me, the money is a moot point. My issues are more about the greater long-term damage that has been done. Years of joint negotiations have been thrown aside, and a trust has been broken. When we next sit down to discuss the future of TUSD, we will do so as adversaries; there will be an air of suspicion and distrust.

Letters from Dr. Pedicone will not repair this rift. I believe that the days of joint involvement in decision-making processes toward a common goal are gone.

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