Taxpayers deserve to know the bargaining framework in TE teacher negotiations

At the August school board meeting, the public learned at the District has entered into contract discussions with the teachers.  We were told that there was agreement on both sides not to discuss the negotiation.  Neither the ‘agreement’ not its specifics was made public.  Resident Neal Colligan contacted the District with a right-to-know request — hoping to find out more about the agreement and the bargaining framework for the teacher negotiations.  Neal sent me the following for Community Matters:

Pattye,

I wanted to let you know that I filed a Right to Know (RTK) request with the School District on August 27, 2013, specifically:

I would like a copy of any and all agreements related to the Early Bird TEEA contract negotiations particularly related to the “ground rules” for the Early Bird talks.  I understand that this will not include any employer or employee contract offers, that is and should remain confidential.

Again, thanks to Ray Clarke and his reporting on the T/ESB Board meeting.  I could tell he was trying to accurately portray the Board’s announcement of the Early Bird negotiations and the specific phrases he used led me to believe they may have been part of a written document.

Rather than grant or deny this request, I received a 30 day delay based on: Legal review required to determine whether record is a public record.  This was quite an odd response.  Possibly my follow-up communication to the Open Records officer will help make my thinking on their response more clear:

Thank you for your timely response to my request.  You’ve indicated that the document(s) that I requested do indeed exist which is a great start and not something that I had known for sure.  As they do exist, I am even more anxious to see them in the public domain.  While I understand the potential need for legal review “to determine whether record is a public record; I do have an opinion as to the timing of that review which you have indicated will take 30 days (September 27, 2013).  Certainly documents of this nature were constructed with legal review/input; meaning that the inside or outside legal team is already familiar with the nature and content of the documents.  The delay here is only to determine if the documents in question are of public record.  As they do not contain any actual negotiating points between the parties, I would think the determination of “public record” would be a quick call.  To be fair, I am not an attorney so I do not offer this as a legal opinion but only one of common sense.  30 days seems awfully long for this review.

This contract which is being negotiated under a gag order is of paramount importance to the members of our community…it is the largest publicly funded workforce in our townships.  Results of this contract will have a profound impact on taxing policy for years.  The Board has stated its intention “To keep the public informed of the progress as it moves forward”.  My request is simply to inform the public of the parameters involved in the formation of the “process that has been agreed to by the Board and each union” (both quotes form the 8/26/13 ActionLine posted on your website).  Please consider expediting my request.  In recent years, this Board’s actions related to (lack of) transparency have been brought into question several times on critical issues important to our citizens.  The Board’s rhetoric is one of openness but there is an opinion among many taxpayers that this Board is not as open in communicating with the community as they have promised.  Let’s turn the page on the past and start a process of inclusion with the citizens who are interested in these issues of local importance. 

To date, I’ve received no follow-up communication from the District.  A review of the District policy concerning Public Access to School District Records does allow for a maximum delay of up to 30 days for information requests.  That’s what I was given but it doesn’t seem necessary in this case for the reasons I’ve cited above.  I’ve also written to the members of the Board seeking their assistance in expediting this request.

Maybe your readers would have interest in this and you have my permission to print this if you see fit.

For the record, the District’s Business Manager Art McDonnell is the Open Records Officer — McDonnell is the one that responds to resident’s right-to-know requests.  As follow-up, I note that Neal has contacted members of the school board in an attempt to expedite the right-to-know request.  I am assuming that Board members have not responded to him.

I don’t understand why the agreement setting the negotiation ground rules between the District and the teachers union is not considered a public document.  The negotiating ground rules were established and apparently both sides agreed — so why shouldn’t the public know the rules. We all want the negotiation situation to be productive but the community deserves transparency.  The negotiating parties should provide the bargaining framework for the taxpayers.

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12 Comments

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  1. I agree with Neal. Tax payers have to be involved right at the beginning – one step at a time.

    We deserve to know the details of negotiations of labor contracts that we will be paying for. There should be no secrets.

    I think we should demand negotiations be conducted in open sessions and even video taped for all to see.

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  2. The Open Records Law allows several exceptions. The following is not a public document –
    .
    (i) A record pertaining to strategy or negotiations relating to labor relations or collective bargaining and related arbitration proceedings.
    .
    With a high profile Right to Know Request (one that has a high chance to end up on CM two months before an election) my guess is that Mr. McDonnell is seeking a formal written opinion from an attorney familiar with Open Records. The Law is relatively new and is not “settled”. Researching the decisions from the Office of Open Records and the Courts takes time.
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    “Ground rules” would seem to be a “record…pertaining to …negotiations…” and, thus, not a public record. The Board, of course, is free to release this document at will to the public. It just depends on how transparent they want to be.
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    If you want an expert opinion go to the PA FOIC website and ask the moderator. The moderator has access to experts.

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    Neal Colligan Reply:

    Thanks Keith. As always, you are a wealth of good information.

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  3. When exactly does the public get a say? After they have an agreement?

    If the public has to pay the bills, the public should be able to witness the decision making process.

    Let’s air out the smoked filled rooms and bring transparency to the negotiations.

    Transparency over confidentiality.

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  4. I’m sorry to say that I think we do not get a say on this. We already had our say-at election time. The board is not going to “show their hand”. We’ve tasked them with getting the best deal possible and now we are forced to leave it up to them.
    This election is going to be very important for our community and we need to all get out there and vote to instill the changes we want to see.
    I do want to add that anytime I’ve filled out a RTK request, I’ve also been given the 30 day delay for various reasons and then denied when the 30 days was up. I’ve learned from reading here on CM that I could have pursued the request further. Next time, I’ll know how to go about that. Thanks Keith.

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  5. What about this policy? What good purpose does it serve? Why was it created?

    Right now it’s serving to keep tax payers (citizens who will pay for it) out of the decision making process.

    A public school district and it’s policies should not be able to shut out tax payers from the negotiating process.

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  6. How many people do you expect to sit at the table for the negotiations? The whole community? No way! You can’t have everyone at the table. If you do, it will fail. If you allow for the negotiation to be public, it is just like having the entire community sit down a the bargaining table. You can’t have it both ways. You either do the negotiations in the CHS auditorium and invite the community or you do it behind closed doors.

    You, as a taxpayer, have every right to voice your opinion. You have the ability to send your publicly elected officials your thoughts and wishes so they can take that thought with them to the table. But in this instance, they are not asking you to come to the table with them.

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  7. I’m generally supportive of the District’s approach – so far. I think it’s best to keep away from publishing any “red lines” and to allow both sides flexibility to try unconventional ideas without the risk of the public making incorrect interpretations.

    Any potential agreements have to be brought to the Board for approval, and here’s where I part company with past practices. I think that the public deserves a chance to study any proposal and let the Board know their opinion well ahead of the vote, not simply react to a summary in the meeting itself. Among other things, this may bring into the sunshine any short term political calculations in this election season.

    A couple of interesting aspects of the TENIG RFP caught my eye in last night’s Finance Committee meeting. The RFP requires that any contractor hire designated District employees, and it also spells out the minimum benefit package to be provided to contractor employees working in the District. These stipulations provide some level of protection for current employees; it will be interesting to see if the benefit package limits the bidder pool.

    [Reply]

    Keith Knauss Reply:

    After reading the RFP it looks like the TESD is looking for outsourced employees (e.g. STS or CCRES) rather than outsourced services (e.g. Servicemaster or Aramark). It would be unusual for TESD to dictate wage and benefit conditions to an outsourced service company.
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    My guess is that the district will see substantial savings due to decreased healthcare and retirement costs.

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  8. Risking a “piling-on” penalty…I have to agree with the Budget Hawk above. Negotiations involving this many workers and their financial future should be kept confidential. My request was to see the ground rules under which the talks would be held.

    The TEEA contract is worth about $50 MM/year (salaries/benefits/pension). A four year contract with increases could be worth just short of a quarter of a Billion dollars. It’s a big deal for both the employees and the taxpayers. So, we’d all sure appreciate a chance to see the proposed, negotiated outcome before it is adopted by our elected representatives. I hope that’s not too much to ask. In the contracts and contract modifications (Memorandums of Understanding) I’ve witnessed in the last two years; they have always been adopted before public distribution.

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  9. Credit should be given to the TESD Board for even announcing that early bird talks were occurring. There was no legal necessity. I could imagine some board members saying, “We tried to be more transparent and got punished for it on CM.”

    [Reply]

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