The adversarial and political nature of the collective bargaining process frequently distorts or stifles communication among key groups in a school district. School board members and administrators, fearful of being charged by the union with unfair labor practices, are often wary of speaking openly and directly with teachers. Taxpayers and members of the community are frequently unaware of, or misinformed about, what is negotiated between their elected school boards and the unions.
For example, unions (and sometimes district negotiators) often make a concerted effort to communicate only the general employee salary increases and not the total bargained increase in compensation. Consequently, Michigan residents tend to lack a clear understanding of the true labor costs for their districts, which typically range between 75 and 85 percent of a school district’s budget. Moreover, as was the case with the Leslie School District in 2006 when the school board sent a newsletter to citizens explaining the district’s financial status, great care must be taken when informing the public, or the union will file an unfair labor practice charge.
Jeff Steinport: "If the community had any clue as to what goes on in bargaining, they would be shocked and dismayed. It’s an adversarial process that makes it extremely clear the union is not interested in education. The union does what it should do: It advocates on behalf of its members, but it does so to the detriment of education. And if the public saw that, the teachers union would have the biggest PR nightmare on their hands ever."
The lack of communication has led analysts to argue that collective bargaining has resulted in too much of the public interest being given away or ignored. Along those lines, researchers Howard Fuller and George Mitchell have proposed that bargaining be made public:
"We believe bargaining sessions should be public. The specifics of union contracts are one of the least reported, yet most important, aspects of American education. With the general public largely shut out, the result is the uneven playing field. ... In Wisconsin, legislation would be required to achieve transparency; currently, if one party requests that the negotiations be private, that prevails. We propose altering those terms so that either party can stipulate that the negotiations be public."
The same is as true in Michigan as it is in Wisconsin. More public and parental involvement in the bargaining process is key to ensuring that schools continue to deliver education of high quality. But while the state of Michigan does permit bargaining to take place publicly, few districts open their negotiations to the entire community.
Jeff Steinport: "It should be 100 percent public. I really don’t like the fact that it’s covered by the Open Meetings Act where you can have closed sessions. I think the public has every right to know what’s being bargained and the costs being bargained over. It’s a tragedy that it’s private and it cannot be made public. There is no reason in my mind, and it’s probably that way because the MEA demanded it or something, but that is the biggest change I would champion if that were ever proposed.
"It’s an advantage for the union. The American government is meant to be open, and there’s nothing special, there’s nothing top secret, no one is going to die if this information is available. It’s bargaining, and it’s between the local school district and a local union. It’s something that’s not supposed to be secret, and [yet] that’s exactly what it is."
Frank Garcia: "I believe what has been effective for Holland Public Schools is our commitment to being open and up front with our community and staff. In the past, negotiations have always been under a blackout agreement between the parties; in other words, very little information was being shared with the public and staff. While I believe it is important [that] all parties abide by their legal obligations, I also believe it’s our obligation to keep our parents, community, taxpayers and staff members informed of the issues and the proposals that have been brought to the table.
"Again, I stress the importance of remaining within your legal obligations. I believe the ‘blackout’ clause has been an effective strategy for the MEA, and they’ve used it well.
"The process we’ve used in Holland has kept the community well informed of the issues, highly informed as a matter of fact, to the point where everyone understood the district’s financial constraints and the board’s negotiation obligations."
There is hope. Many other states are now requiring that collective bargaining be done in public. William Keane notes that:
"The public may tolerate being left out of the process when things are working smoothly. When trouble results, they will be heard. So-called sunshine laws in Florida and other locations, which require that collective bargaining be carried out in public, are on the books because the public interest can be ignored only so long."