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Why Fresh Starts Matter in Negotiating Teachers' Contracts

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Friday, March 23, 2012 at 12:37 PM

Walknboston / Flickr

One of the big things that the Cleveland Teachers Union doesn't like about a package of legislative changes that Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson wants state lawmakers to make is a "fresh-start" provision.

That provision would require the union and district to start with a clean slate in the next round of contract negotiations. Usually, those negotiations start from an existing contract. Starting instead from a blank slate would be “a deal-breaker,” Ohio Federation of Teachers President Melissa Cropper said. (The Cleveland Teachers Union is part of the OFT.)

Mayor Jackson has said he thinks the Cleveland school district urgently needs to make changes in how it operates. Having to negotiate with the teachers union along the way could make it harder for district administrators to push through any future changes. Jackson said last month about the need for rapid change:

"We've been in perpetual discussion about a lot of things. Our sense of urgency is such that something has to happen in a systemic way and it has to happen now."

Union officials have said that they're open to making changes in the Cleveland school district, just not this particular one affecting how teachers' contracts are negotiated.

We wrote earlier about some of the odd provisions (like a provision allowing cell phones for all teachers upon request and a "no overalls in the classroom") that can survive year after year in teacher contracts that don't have a "fresh start."

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It can be difficult for the union or the school board to remove an existing contract provision:

In most districts, the negotiating teams engage in housekeeping to “clean up” a contract. But taking a provision out once it goes in is difficult, said [the Ohio School Boards Association's Renee] Fambro. Sometimes, the discussion at the bargaining table starts with the school board’s negotiators saying a particular requirement no longer needs to be in the contract.

“And the union’s response is, if it’s no big deal, let’s leave it in the labor agreement,” she said.

It's a response that could also come from the school board negotiators. But because many parts of teachers' contracts have to do with establishing teachers' compensation and minimum working conditions, "leave it in" is a response more likely to come from the union side of the table.

For example, take a contract provision that requires the district notify teachers of any requests to view their personnel files. (It's in the Sugarcreek teachers contract.)

Take that out, and it makes life easier for district administrators: They can still notify teachers affected, but if they don't notify them they're not breaking any rules.

But taking it out means that teachers lose that right. If administrators decide not to notify a teacher of someone requesting his or her personnel file, there's nothing the teacher can do about it.

The Sugarcreek contract is a small example, but one that could be extend to things that likely matter more to many teachers and administrators, things like grievance procedures, evaluations and working conditions.


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