In general, school board members are required by virtue of their position to find a balance between the needs of the school system’s employees and the system’s customers, who are the students, parents and taxpayers. However, in collective bargaining, protecting the interests of students and taxpayers becomes paramount, as education personnel are represented by their unions.
Robert Barkley, former executive director of the Ohio Education Association, described the role of the school board this way: "The fundamental and legitimate purposes of unions [are] to protect the employment interests of their members. It is the primary function of management to represent the basic interests of the enterprise: teaching and learning."
Boards must know what they want to achieve, maintain the necessary backup materials to support their position, and compromise when necessary, as long as it does not harm the principle at stake or limit future action. Carrying out this role is, of course, a bit more complex.
Richard Putvin: "We are a board that sets policy. We don’t run the district. I’m hiring you to do the job as superintendent. For me to go in every day and check on you is ridiculous. It’s not my job. My job was to hire you to do the job. If there’s a problem, I’ll address it, but I’m not going to go into buildings every day to try and be there to run the district. It has to be left up to the people we hire to do that. That makes a big difference. If you get a board that tends to want to run the district, what have you got a superintendent for? You’re wasting your money."
Sandra Feeley Myrand: "The role of the school board is dependent on the cultural history of the school district. In some communities, the school board plays a very active, almost quasi-administrative role. In other school districts, as is true in Lakeview, the school board really adheres to its policies, which determines who has responsibility for what administrative oversight. The Lakeview board adheres faithfully to the concept that they are the policy setters for the school district and the overseers of implementation of those policies. One of the board’s roles is to be sensitive to the community’s thinking about issues in the school district and to represent the community in creating the policies that guide the district. The board-superintendent relationship sets the tone for the other employees in the district. In turn, the goals that are set by the superintendent for the board of education then guide the goals for all the administrators in the district."
The Michigan Association of School Boards has offered a number of practical suggestions regarding the role of the school board in collective bargaining:
"In relationship to the collective bargaining process, the board as a whole serves several primary functions. These include:
attaining a fundamental understanding of its legal obligations as well as the dynamics of the negotiations process;
developing an understanding of the school board’s role; establishing goals and parameters; designating the board’s negotiations team; overseeing the administrative preparation process; [and]
ultimately ratifying the terms of the agreement reached by the negotiations team."
One of the issues that must be confronted by a board is whether to hire a professional negotiator and/or labor attorney. This decision is, of course, a matter of discretion based on a district’s size and circumstances, as well as the relationship between the administration and staff bargaining team members.
Frank Garcia: "[W]e feel it is important to have an attorney on our negotiating team. It’s no secret the MEA has a busload of attorneys and PR staff at their disposal. While we’ve had several [unfair labor practices] filed against the board by the Holland Education Association, we’re confident they’re unjustified and frivolous based on the appropriate process the board has implemented and the advice of a knowledgeable attorney."
Sandra Feeley Myrand on whether a board should hire professional negotiators or stay in-house: "Having experienced both circumstances, I believe that both approaches have merit. If resources are available, and the parameters clear, local administrators can do a fine job of negotiating on behalf of the board; if resources are limited and it appears that compromise will be difficult, using a labor attorney makes sense. The disadvantage to having an internal person negotiate is the potential for lingering distrust and bad feelings by the union toward that person. Understanding the psychological makeup and biases of the union leadership should also influence the decision to use an outside negotiator."
Henry Saad: "It’s very difficult to say what makes a good negotiator, but I tell you if a school board has an outstanding chief negotiator it makes the school board’s job a lot easier. The school board would be well advised to ensure that the person that they get who is the chief negotiator has the kind of reputation that has trust from the administration, because he has to deal very closely with the superintendent — not just the board — and all of the administrators and has to have the ability to deal with the union, and that’s very hard to find. … You also want to make sure [not to hire] a negotiator that comes in and does slash-and-burn and then leaves. Then all of a sudden there’s three years of animosity. That doesn’t help anybody either."
Lynn Parrish on whether to bring in outside help: "I think that under certain circumstances that’s the way to go, because there is so much animus that can arise and so many dirty tricks and game-playing when it comes to collective bargaining that if a superintendent, for example, is to wear the white hat, and if he is to get through this thing, and, on the other side of collective bargaining, if he is expected to have to show support for school reform, support for district initiatives, then sometimes it keeps the dirt off him or her. It is something the unions will of course target and criticize, because it is an expense of the school district, and they’ll say look at this, you’re paying this lawyer to do what you could and should do in-house."
It must be remembered, however, that whether a board chooses to hire a negotiator or not, it is still responsible for the ultimate product. Board members may find that in yielding negotiating authority to a professional negotiator or to school administration, there can arise agendas that are not board-driven and therefore not necessarily in the best interest of the board or the district. To give an extreme example, a superintendent nearing retirement might be inclined to give away an item in exchange for labor peace.
Contract terms are real, and they impact the future. Consequently, professional negotiators, or negotiators gleaned from school administration, can be important. However, blind faith in negotiators is not only unwise; it violates the school board’s obligation to the community.