by Deb Dudley, Luan Burman Rivera and Peggy Wozniak

BoardWise is a forum for board members and superintendents across the state to share questions about governance and board–superintendent relations. CSBA governance consultants work together to address your pressing concerns.

This year, in addition to our column regulars, Deb Dudley and Luan Burman Rivera, we are welcoming new consultants throughout the year. This issue features Peggy Wozniak, who has worked in rural, suburban and urban school settings as a teacher, principal and superintendent in California and New York. In addition to her work with CSBA, she is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Reno.
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Dear BoardWise,

I am the superintendent in a northern California school district. We have a strong negotiation team, one that follows the direction and mandates of the board at the bargaining table. Our local teachers union has requested that our board come to the table to negotiate. I would like to get your thoughts on this issue from a good governance perspective.

Luan: Great question! Board Bylaw 9000, The Role of the Board, clearly defines the appropriate functions and responsibilities of the board during the negotiation process, which is “Setting parameters for negotiations with employee organizations and ratifying collective bargaining agreements,” and “monitoring the collective bargaining process.” It is a school board’s responsibility to define the desired outcomes, and it is important that the board clearly articulate what those desired outcomes are as a collective team.

Nowhere in that bylaw is it stated that a board member should actually participate in or observe the bargaining process, and that is for good reason. Having one or more board members participate in negotiations can undermine the process and create conflict — both at the bargaining table and at the board table.

Achieving the desired outcomes, within the parameters set by the board, is the responsibility of the professional staff. Most board members do not have experience with labor negotiations. That’s a special skill set, one that’s best practiced by those with training and experience.

Peggy: A clear understanding of the board role in communication throughout the process is also critical. At the onset, it is important that the board articulate what the board —as a collective voice — wants to achieve through the bargaining process. Alignment between district goals and bargaining agreements is key.

Internal communications are also crucial. Board members and the superintendent need to have a solid understanding of the agreed upon parameters for negotiations, and also how board members will get the answers they need on how agreements might affect budgets and contracts, as well as the overall goals of the board.

Keeping the community and media informed as negotiations progress is additionally important. You may choose to develop a protocol or a joint statement that communicates the values and agreements, or “rules of conduct,” that the district will adhere to throughout the process. It is also helpful to have a communication plan to address different stakeholder groups.

Finally, support the decision of the board. Agree that, at a minimum, all members are expected to refrain from undermining the decision and to keep confidential things confidential.

Deb: A board member’s presence at the bargaining table, even as a silent observer, might have an unintended and undesired impact on the effectiveness of the negotiation process. For me, I think it all comes down to how a board member observing or participating in the process may be perceived.

For example, other board members might assume the board member sitting at the negotiating table will get additional information that they do not receive in bargaining updates. Because all board members should have equal access to information, if individual board members are present in negotiations, they may have, or be perceived to have, much greater access to information than their colleagues.

Alternatively, the bargaining unit may be watching for a reaction that indicates a position, especially if something unexpected or controversial happens. If a board member has an unintended reaction, this can disrupt the entire process.

Finally, the presence of a board member at the negotiation table may imply a lack of support and trust in the district negotiating team and district staff, which can undermine the entire negotiating process and harm the relationship between the board and the district negotiating team and the staff as a whole.