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Superintendent's Blog

A Collaborative Approach to Problem-Solving

Twenty years ago, the school district was at an impasse. According to Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Shannon Pelland, “We were financially upside down. We had frozen salaries for several years.” Unsurprisingly, “The relations between the teacher bargaining group and the district were soured.” Part of the problem was the traditional bargaining process, which pitted teachers against administrators and didn’t put the interests of the students first. “Both sides came out losers, and it did so much damage to relationships,” said Pelland. With nothing to lose, Superintendent Fred Wahl recommended a different approach.

That approach was called Interest Based Bargaining (IBB). Unlike the industrial labor model of collective bargaining used in most school districts to negotiate teacher compensation and working conditions, IBB is sometimes called win-win bargaining because it seeks to meet the needs of both sides. In traditional bargaining -- often called positional bargaining -- one side stakes out a position, the other side takes a different position, and they typically meet somewhere in between. IBB identifies common interests, and both sides work collaboratively to find a way to fulfill them.

For example, the rub between planning time and contact time is always under dispute in schools. Teachers typically -- and legitimately -- complain that they don’t have enough time to get everything done. Planning time -- used for preparing lessons, grading papers, setting up classrooms -- is often cut short by other demands. On the other hand, the more time that teachers spend in direct contact teaching students, the fewer staff a school needs to hire, and the more efficiently a school can operate from a budgetary perspective.

Through traditional bargaining, administrators might come to the table and demand more teaching time and limit teachers’ planning time, while teachers might demand more planning time and say the budget isn’t their problem. After relentless and rancorous rounds of bargaining, the two sides would meet somewhere in the middle, both losing ground, and, in the process, losing trust and regard for each other.

But in IBB, administrators and teachers would work to identify common interests. Clearly, if we want teachers to teach well, we need to give them time for planning. And if they want to be fairly compensated, we need to maximize, within reason, their workload because every inefficiency that requires us to hire more staff cuts into what we can pay each individual. By recognizing and validating both the need for planning time and budgetary constraints, all parties can work together to find win-win solutions.

When people are focusing on the interests of the whole, they are more inclined to put their selfish interests aside. For example, a couple years ago, the group collectively recommended a smaller pay increase for teachers in order to pay for health insurance for all employees in the district.

According to teacher Autumn Rivera, “IBB doesn't have levels or hierarchy. We all are people on the same team fighting for what's best for our students and staff.” Says Rhonda Tatham, the president of the Roaring Fork Community Education Association, “The process is unique because all parties work together to solve problems that one group is having.” This teamwork doesn’t just happen; it has evolved through an ongoing commitment to a highly structured process.

IBB as used in Roaring Fork Schools has evolved over time. Former RFCEA president Megan Talbott initiated the process of surveying all teachers to ensure that as many voices as possible could contribute to the interests identified to be addressed. “This helped us understand and support each other in the formation of the interest and in the way we speak about it during IBB,” she noted. Every year, teachers from each school, administrators, and a board member start the negotiation in the fall by identifying common interests, and then they break into teams to tackle the issues and propose solutions. After a filmed presentation to the entire staff, policy recommendations go to the board of education.

As participants reflected on their experiences with IBB, I heard overwhelming support for it over traditional bargaining. At the same time, most pointed out that the process isn’t perfect. This style of negotiation takes much more time from many more people than traditional bargaining. Change tends to be incremental rather than transformational. Trust must be built, it is sometimes hard to maintain, and it is not easily conveyed to those who were not directly involved in the negotiations. IBB isn’t a panacea, but unlike traditional bargaining, it’s a trust builder rather than a trust buster.

Issues in education, as elsewhere, remain challenging and can get contentious. Readers of the Post Independent are familiar with highly publicized disagreements this year. Yet, even in the worst of times, we came back to our commitment to IBB and collaborative decision-making in a joint statement from the district and RFCEA affirming our commitment to IBB.

As Tatham concludes in this year’s presentation to staff, “It is a very important process...to work collaboratively with everyone...to solve the problems that we face only make the district stronger and our teaching stronger.”

There’s an adage in the news business: there are never any headlines declaring “Plane lands safely.” Similarly, in education, there are never headlines declaring, “Teachers and administrators collaborate around common interests.” Roaring Fork teachers and administrators have been systematically and universally working together around common interests for 20 years and remain committed to that collaborative approach to solving problems.

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