Seats at the Table

David Hockney, Walking Past Two Chairs 1984-6

Jimmy Cliff , “Sitting In Limbo” (click to listen or download).

The big item at the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education meeting/retreat/workshop last night was the process for replacing the collective bargaining agreement with an employee hand book (thanks Scott Walker).  Being a retreat/workshop, nothing was decided.  In my view, at this point the most important issues are who will have seats at the table for the drafting of the handbook and what roles will the Board of Education play.

Matt Defour has a story on this portion of the meeting and Karen Vieth has a great write-up, so I’m mostly just going to offer comments, observations and opinions.

As of now, the default process, as put in place by departed Superintendent Dan Nerad (apparently without consulting the Board), is that the handbook process and drafting the handbook will be in the charge of a 15 member “Work Group” made up entirely of Administrators.  If the Board does not act, this is what we get, no seats at the table for teachers and other non-administrative staff.  The Board needs to act.

Recently I posted a cartoon of workers being locked out of discussions of labor; I never thought this would be the case in Madison.  This is insane.  An all administrative committee should not have even been among the options considered.   Our community supported our teachers when they walked out to protest the collective bargaining being decimated, Dane County voted 68% in favor Collective Bargaining, we are a community that recognizes the importance of workers and teachers having a voice and having their voices heard, we are a district where the successful school board candidate NOT endorsed by the unions saw “teachers and staff…playing a central role” in the handbook process.  This is the kind of thing you’d expect in Waukesha, not Madison.  Scott Walker and his supporters must be very pleased.

As described at the meeting, the default Madison process would allow for staff input via surveys and other means, but this is far different than having people at the table as part of the drafting team.    That’s not collaborative or a partnership.

Around the state, other communities have found ways to bring diverse staff to the table as partners.  I don’t have a complete list, but Middleton is doing it, La Crosse did it, Monona Grove did it,  Watertown did itSomerset did it, Hartland-Lakeside did itEau Claire did it .  Madison needs to do it.

They didn’t do it simply because it is fair and right, they did it because it makes sense.    La Crosse knew that the best decisions would not be made in “an administration in a vacuum.”  And the result was positive.

“I think the final product is a good product,” [Superintendent Randy] Nelson said. “It represents a balance that I think maintains the respect and dignity of our staff.”

Respect and dignity were part of the product because respect and dignity were part of the process.

The other issue in this is the role of the Board.  Arlene Silveira suggested that rather than have a Board member be part of the committee, Board Members sit in on the meetings on a rotating basis and keep the rest of the Board informed.  This seemed to have general support from the rest of the Board.   These is a good idea.

Maya Cole (and others) expressed concerns about the handbook process going forward with little input or guidance from the Board, both in terms of general philosophy and specifics.  Her fear was that in the end, with the clock ticking, the Board would be given only less-than-satisfactory choices.

There was some Pollyannaish talk that the “Guiding Principles” in the process document  — especially the first two “1. Improve student learning. As in everything we do, the first question and the top priority is student learning. How does what we are considering impact students? 2. Empower staff to do their best work. How does this impact teachers and staff? Does it help or hinder them in doing their jobs effectively?” — would be sufficient (a little more below on this), but there seemed to be a consensus that at very least the committee should present some options to the Board.  That’s another reason to have an inclusive committee; to get better options.

A quick aside on the “Guiding Principals” and related thoughts and then back to the Board’s role.  It is all well and good to say that student learning is or should be primary in just about everything, but it is also false and serves to marginalize staff.  I’ve long said that the interests of teachers align with the interests of students and the district by about 95% and yes “student learning” is the prime interest.  But staff are adults, with mortgages, families to support, loans to pay, relationships to cultivate and maintain, …They are not and should not be people who put student learning above the their own well being.  To  even contemplate that they should be is disrespectful.  That’s why we hear the “All about the students” meme  from the anti-teacher/anti-union reform crowd.  It sound good, but it is wrong.  Think about it, did the people negotiating a contract on behalf of Interim Superintendent Belmore put “student learning at the top of their list?  Of course not, and they shouldn’t have.

The only people who really have a claim to this position are the Board Members, and as the later discussion of taxes and budget at the meeting demonstrated (along with the years of under-levy), even the Board seeks to balance what is best for students with what is best for taxpayers (btw — good to hear Interim Sup. Belmore and some Board Members acknowledge how budget -driven cuts from contingency funds have limited flexibility in harmful ways, and talk about restoring some of these).   Let’s drop the false, feel good rhetoric.  [Some related things on the “All about the kids” rhetoric in relation to Madison Prep, here and here.]

Glad I got that off my chest.  The Board’s role is tricky.  They have the final say and responsibility, but almost certainly should not be intimately involved every step of the way (involved, but not intimately).  Beyond whatever “Guiding Principals” they endorse or don’t  (and this is the job of the Board, not the administration), I’d suggest the give the committee two lists.  The first list should be of things they do not want changed; the second of things where they would like to have some options for changes.  I’d put “just cause” for dismissals at the top of the first list.  On the second, the committee should provide both options and analyses of the options.

I’m not sure if this is the kind of thing Maya Cole was talking about.  She seemed to be thinking of something less detailed.   One thing Ms Cole did say very clearly was that in regard to the process the Board should make motions and take votes, and the sooner the better.  We are in agreement on that.

Right now, as the song says, this is in limbo.  There is a process, the administration is in complete control of it, there are “Guiding Principles,” things are going forward, but the Board seems poised to act to redirect and remake.  Till they do act (or announce in some manner a decision not to act), we are in limbo.  As always, write the Board to tell them what you think they should do (or not do):  board@madison.k12.wi.us.

Thomas J. Mertz

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1 Comment

Filed under "education finance", Best Practices, Budget, Contracts, education, Gimme Some Truth, Local News, School Finance, Scott Walker, Take Action, Uncategorized

One response to “Seats at the Table

  1. Ted Lewis

    This really is insane! Classroom educators and other union members should be an integral part of the process of developing the handbook, as not only do they have a personal stake in the final product, but they are also the most familiar with what does and does not work. I might expect an all administrative handbook development team in New Berlin–but Madison?? Really??

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