As a bit of history for those that are new readers to Community Matters. When I started this journey 2-1/2 years ago, it was without a personal agenda except to engage the community on important issues and to encourage greater transparency from our elected officials.
Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability; a metaphorical extension of the meaning a “transparent” object is one that can be seen through. In government, transparency is vital to a healthy democracy. Public scrutiny helps ensure that government works for the people and spends their tax dollars wisely.
As far as the teacher contract negotiations are concerned, I suggest that both sides ‘open the door’ that in the past has been closed. We have seen how in the last few days, the ‘cloaked in secrecy’ approach to the negotiations is not working and is showing signs of cracking. Discussion is turning to conjecture, as in the ‘he said, she said’ world; which is never good. Letting the sunlight shine in on the negotiations, would help the parents, taxpayers (and employees) better understand the process and the District’s priorities.
My assumption is that if negotiations were public and everyone could see the negotiations, it would help us (the taxpayers) to further understand the positions of the teachers and the District. If all that the community hears is a partial or half-truth from either side, the misinformation is perpetuated and the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. The teachers’ contract accounts for a significant part of the budget and strongly influences the bottom line of the District’s financial picture. The negotiating period is the only time when informed public opinion can have any possible effect on the decisions of elected officials, but how can the public reasonably weigh in on the proposals without having all the facts. A mandatory public comment period on the yearly budget seems a bit like an empty exercise if we do not have updated contract negotiation information.
The early disclosure of each side’s proposed contract terms would reduce the incentive to open negotiations with extreme proposals made merely for bargaining purposes. Extreme proposals from TEEA or the school board are bound to create hard feelings as we have recently seen and the potential to prolong negotiation, thereby making compromise more difficult. Conversely, an open and public process (transparency) would lead to proposals that are more realistic from both sides and narrow the range of disagreement in the process.
In the last few days, we heard from several teachers who alluded to a less than satisfactory proposal from the school district in regards to insurance and reduced salary. Add the possibility of demotion for economic reasons to the plate of the teachers, and it is no surprise that they are concerned. Do we have the entire story from TEEA on the subject of benefits and salary, probably not? On the other hand, what have the teachers proposed to the District and what was the school board’s response. Don’t know; the public doesn’t have any of those answers.
How about the negotiating parties work to make the process transparent for the public – posting the bargaining framework, their proposals and counter-proposals on the TESD website, as they become available. This kind of transparency would help the TESD parents and community members understand how children will be taught and how the tax dollars will be invested. The relationship between teachers and school administrators is an important element in what shapes public schools. There is no better way to understand this relationship than to observe the contract process. The teachers are public employees, so why shouldn’t the union negotiations be public.
As a community, we should call on our elected school board members and teachers union to put the needs of students and families first and honor the public investment of taxpayers. I ask for both sides to be more open about the negotiation process – talk truths to each other and to the public. It’s time to turn on the lights, open the windows and the doors.