It’s a word that hardly sounds positive when it comes to a negotiation. And yet, it is what the teachers union declared last week before walking out on negotiations for a new contract with the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Not to be the eternal optimist, but designation of an impasse may be just what the doctor ordered, as it will lead to designation of a mediator between two groups that seem to have little trust for each other in a possible standoff where there’s plenty of blame to go around.
While the new Board of Education can cite its election success as proof that the public supports change in the system, this school district, by and large, works remarkably well for the vast majority of the kids for whom it provides an education. While the new board majority can, and probably should, work to implement changes based upon the philosophies they bring to the job, there needs to be recognition that changes should be at the margins. We can create more alternatives without dismantling the programs that are in place for the majority of students and their families who are satisfied customers.
Similarly, the teachers union must approach these negotiations with recognition that the new board majority has both a right and responsibility to look for ways to implement changes that reflect the values they and their supporters embody. When the union representatives declared the impasse and then immediately went to a pre-scheduled rally to blast the board, it was apparent that they left the bargaining table without clean hands.
So, where to we go from here? Once we get a mediator named, both sides need to decide what they really care about. The teachers need to understand that elections have consequences and that the new majority has every right to make changes. Similarly, the new board members need to come to a conclusion about what they really want to accomplish. We don’t need to blow up what’s working or declare war on the teachers and their union to create more choices and give parents who want different programs for their children a greater voice.
And the last thing we need is for these negotiations to go back behind closed doors. With demonstrated problems from both sides, our best hope for meaningful negotiations and a settlement that recognizes all parties’ legitimate concerns is a smart and talented mediator and the public’s full attention to keep everyone on point and working toward a solution that fairly compensates our teachers, allows for reasonable changes by the board and — let’s all remember this one — provides the very best possible educations for the kids whose futures are in the hands of this district.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.