“Show me the money!” That’s not just a classic line from the 1996 movie “Jerry McGuire,” but also any union’s continuing negotiation mantra. Typically unions come into negotiations seeking additional money and other goodies from boards of education which are of benefit only to their members. Granted, this is the union’s obligation to its membership, but far too often in the past, boards have given more without securing something in return –changes that would benefit the students or the district.
However, pendulums swing, and many boards are now “getting” as much as they are giving. While local unions continue to fight hard to prevent any changes to their individual contractual status quo, board negotiating teams which have had a prepared and deliberate game plan for negotiations have been achieving union concessions.
According to NJSBA’s annual survey of settlements, 73 percent of settlements covering the 2014-2015 school year contained at least one concession or board achievement. This trend has been holding steady since around the beginning of the “Great Recession.” In this era of continued limited resources, taxpayer objection and educational uncertainty, the concession trend must continue to increase for districts to have economic and educational viability moving forward. Boards have a limited ability to raise additional revenue in this era of the 2 percent property tax levy cap. But they also have an unprecedented opportunity to seek some real benefits for the district and its students.
The biggest area of union concession and board gain is in work time. Whether it is a longer work year, longer work day, or additional flexibility in the daily schedule, boards are obtaining unparalleled gains. This additional time is used for a myriad of needed student-focused areas, such as student instructional time, professional development, additional help at the end of the day, or more faculty meetings and planning.
While the impact of a few minutes here or an additional day there might not sound significant in comparison to the salary increases which may be given, the reality is these increases are of tremendous value. The addition of even a few more minutes to the day in instructional time can result in several more days of learning for students. For example, one district negotiated an addition of only 15 minutes more to the workday, which results in 2,700 additional minutes a year. This equates to a teacher teaching students for an additional forty-five hours per year, or more than six additional days. Surely, everyone can agree an additional six days of student learning is educationally beneficial.
Health Insurance Concessions
As gains in work time have been increasing, health insurance achievements have slowed, due primarily to the Chapter 78 premium contribution requirements. Prior to Chapter 78, only thirteen percent of school districts had their employees directly contributing to the cost of their health insurance premiums, and those that did contributed at a very minimal rate. Without the requirement of contributions under this law, school districts would still be fighting for any real cost savings, leaving other important issues to fade into the background.
It is important to understand that boards must reject any union proposal to change or eliminate the existing Chapter 78 contribution levels. There simply is no benefit to the board for such a reduction, which will only mean higher board costs associated with medical insurance. Moreover, any argument that a reduction in the Chapter 78 rates will result in a lower settlement rate is without merit. Indeed, the data available to NJSBA does not support the argument, as it shows those districts that have agreed to Chapter 78 reductions have agreed to higher settlement rates. Thus, do not be fooled into thinking the board must agree to Chapter 78 reduction to obtain a settlement.
However, existence of Chapter 78 does not mean other health insurance concessions have gone the way of the rotary phone – we are still seeing districts report the changing of health plans as a way to save both the district and the employee money, eliminating the traditional plan altogether, reducing or eliminating opt-out waiver incentives and increasing co-pays. Moreover, additional cheaper plan options are also becoming a big trend. Keep in mind, staff benefit from a cheaper plan as they are paying a percentage of the cost.
Other Notable Areas of Achievement
Aside from increased work time, there have also been increased board achievements in other areas. To be sure, negotiations have more often been resulting in an improvement of the salary guide, such as eliminating bubbles and educational columns and other aberrations that can result in high cost of increment. Further, board successes in tuition reimbursement (implementing a cap or adding tighter rules for course reimbursement), eliminating or reducing longevity amounts, and freezing extracurricular and other stipends have also been reported.
Additionally, boards have sought and successfully obtained concessions from the union and have obtained greater controls on use of prep time and payment for unused sick leave. In short, boards have been looking to both the district’s short-term and long-term needs and goals during negotiations and have obtained union concessions and contractual improvements which look beyond just the coming school year and address long-term planning.
How to Obtain a Concession
While it is easy to say a district has obtained a concession from the union, it is more difficult to say how it was achieved. Often the board’s proposal seeking a concession is met with resistance and occasionally outright indignation. Getting past this hurdle is crucial to the boards’ success.
By definition “conceding” means to surrender or yield, and it is never easy for one party to agree to give up something it already has. Thus, the party seeking the change has the burden of persuasion. In order to persuade the union, the board must not only have the ability to fully explain in detail why the concession is needed, but also the potential benefits to both sides (if any). If there are no obvious benefits to the union, this does not preclude union concession, it simply means the board must thoroughly explain the importance of the sought-after concession to any possible settlement being achieved.
Keep in mind the most obvious benefit to the union in a settlement is the salary increase it is seeking. The board should not simply agree to a salary increase without receiving a benefit in exchange. Negotiations are a give-and-take approach, and in order for either side to get something, it must be willing to give. What cannot be overlooked is neither side is owed anything walking into negotiations. The union is not entitled to a salary increase, and the board is not owed any concession. Thus, for the union to receive an increase in salary, which is what it most typically seeks, it must be willing to concede on some of the board’s proposals.
However, the value of the board’s proposal is intimately related to any salary increase the board is willing to agree to. For example, while the value of longer faculty meetings or a cap on tuition reimbursement might only be worth a quarter of a percent, an extra ten minutes of daily student contract time may be worth a full percent point. Different boards have different needs – and therefore a different rationale for a proposal. Only the board itself can accurately judge the value of the concession sought.
When negotiating with the union and seeking concessions, the tone is important. The board should never apologize for seeking any concession, or couch the proposal in some unrealistic basis. The proposed concession is simply what the board seeks in exchange for agreement on one or more of the union’s issues. To this end, the board must impress upon the union the seriousness of the proposal, and stress that a settlement cannot be achieved unless its goals are met. The board must be very careful in this approach, as there is a right way and wrong way to say it, but it should be a clear and unambiguous message.
Although it is undeniable that unions have started to yield on concessions in negotiations, boards must continue to achieve more in negotiations. There is always more the board can seek to improve the educational opportunities of its students and the operations of the district. Contrary to what one union leader recently declared at a labor conference, the “concession stand” is and remains open.
Boards of education must be prepared to seek concessions from the union, not just to justify any union sought increase, but also to achieve its educational goals and long-range planning. The value of any sought-after concession is something which will be judged not only on an individual basis, but also through the prism of public perception and negotiating history.
While boards may be willing to show the union some money, there must be some give and take. Absent the union’s willingness to concede on some board proposals, there should be no agreement on any increase in salary. In short, when it comes to achieving some concessions from the union at the negotiations table, the board has the union “at hello.”