Now that the teachers of Hinsdale Township High School District 86 and the school board have finally settled their contract negotiations (the teachers ratified the agreement with over 85% in favor, and the board had another bizarre meeting but eventually voted in favor of the contract 4-3), we who care about quality education should focus on what we can learn from this unpleasant, melodramatic affair. No, it’s not just because I taught for thirty-three years that I always look to turn life into a lesson plan; it’s also because…um…okay, maybe it is. But there is much to be gleaned from this soap opera that can help all community members interested in making any school district better.
For those of you who didn’t follow this over the past year or so, a new majority came to power on the school board with an agenda, especially when it came to teacher unions and compensation. (For much more on the specifics of what happened, check out many of my blog entries, all of which can be found at https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/.) From eliminating the teachers’ salary schedule completely to merit pay to PE teachers teaching an extra period to a non-union-apparel dress code, this group sought to alter many standard practices which have been in most teacher contracts for decades.
And they had every right to make their case on all of these issues. The first lesson to be learned here is that just because something has “always” been one way doesn’t mean that different approaches can’t be considered. As a past union leader in District 86, I never had to fight for the salary schedule or argue with the board about why PE teachers are real teachers too, which led to some organizational complacency, I suppose. While I disagree with most of the positions the board majority has taken, they should get credit for challenging the “givens,” a healthy exercise for institutions like schools which are steeped in ancient practices; some of which still exist only because “that’s the way it’s always been.” (You do not want to get me started on how many times I ran into that lame roadblock over the course of my career.)
Where these change-seeking board members lose most of that credit, however, is in how they approached negotiating for those modifications: They didn’t work with the teachers to find compromises and common ground so much as issue edicts without attempting any discussions about ways the new ideas might be modified so they would also meet the teachers’ needs. Skoda and Corcoran, in particular, acted as if their being in power was the only rationale they needed to enact their agenda, and the teachers could leave if they didn’t like it. While these two often protested that they never showed anyone any disrespect, the way they approached their teachers—as if they were lowly, overpaid underlings to be bossed around—was demeaning, inappropriate, in violation of the spirit (if not the letter) of collective bargaining laws, and, yes, disrespectful.
Then there was the deception, spinning, and evasions. Starting with claims that teacher salary proposals were “unsustainable” to the comical display at the October 6 board meeting where Corcoran and Skoda danced around the question of who had written the infamous “scab” ad (which recently appeared in The Washington Post at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/10/09/tell-us-what-you-really-think/), the board majority tried to manipulate public opinion with closed press conferences, disingenuous fliers, personal emails, and inflammatory press releases. We all assume public officials will try to show themselves and their actions in the most positive light, but this board went well beyond normal PR shadings into flat out distortion and intimidation of anyone who dared to disagree with the company line. Most of you have heard about the teachers who were to be “investigated” because they had liked a Patch on-line article which was shared on Facebook that contained an inadvertently attached and completely unrelated axe-in-dashboard picture, a complete bullying tactic. But few are aware of how all department chairs were also threatened with losing their chair positions if they participated in a teachers’ strike, even though they had every legal right to do so. One of the most harmful results of this majority’s tenure thus far has been the damage it has done to public and employee trust in the District 86 school board. And that will take a long time to rebuild, if it’s even possible with this particular group.
What should have been rational discourse on two different approaches to wages and teacher rights turned into a spectacle of personalities and showmanship. The board negotiations team stopped talking to the teachers and used their lawyer to posture instead of working toward solutions. They regularly published misleading or flat-out wrong statistics and tried to undermine the very process they were supposed to be following. Public business meetings degenerated into shout fests with everyone showing up either to lambast the board or to slam the union. That Don O’Neil is disappointed in the “avarice” of the teachers is not a shocker, folks; he’s been disappointed in District 86 ever since he sent his kids to private schools and followed school buses around to determine if the routes being driven were wasteful decades ago, not to mention quitting the school board in a huff before his term was over after contract negotiations were settled with the teachers back in 1996. At that time, he claimed the district was spending money “like a drunken sailor.” And some of the teacher supporters have been lecturing boards on what they should do for many years without choosing to participate in any other way except to hold forth at public meetings. (Before you rightfully point out that’s exactly what I’m doing with these blog entries, ouch, you hit a guy where it hurts. I would also respectfully point out that for over twenty of the twenty-five years I worked in District 86 I did participate as union grievance chair, HHSTA president, and chief spokesperson for the teachers in two different contract negotiations. So there is that.)
What’s also unfortunate is how this debacle has made it seem so completely awful to be a school board member. Board membering is one of the more important volunteer jobs we have, but after this fiasco, how many potentially great board members wouldn’t even consider participating. I’m guessing that being “Underappreciated” will always be part of the job description listed for “School Board Member,” but we shouldn’t want everyone except the most politically extreme to gasp in horror when the possibility of helping out on a school board is raised. Right now in District 86, there are probably a lot more people thinking about running from compared to those running for the school board.
So another teachable moment here for any community facing a school board election is to make sure that you understand the implications of your vote. It would not have taken too much effort to uncover the intentions of these members prior to their election. But, it would take some digging, since campaigns rarely reveal the true nature of how a candidate will actually perform in office. What would help is an impartial group which devotes the time and diligence to interviewing and studying the candidates, and then publicizes the results of those efforts. And that “studying” should involve more than candidates just filling out a questionnaire.
The challenge for that to happen, of course, is figuring out how to determine who is on this representative group, to begin to meet, and to establish procedures. As I’ve said before, anyone motivated to do that much work should probably consider running for the school board instead. But it would serve the larger good for such a group to exist. To see how it might work (and is working in some places), check out this article: https://jamescrandell.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/school-boards-3-getting-good-ones/.
We’ve also learned that given enough pressure, even the most intransigent school board will grudgingly acquiesce to the will of the people. Unfortunately, that pressure took the form of brutal board meetings where community member after community member slammed the board. Again, being on a school board is an unpaid job, and while much of the criticism heaped on the board majority was merited, a small portion was malicious, unfair, and even vaguely threatening. I’m not sure that rational, thoughtful comments would have gotten this board to move, as that’s what the teachers had been trying for many months, but it’s too bad that it came to these confrontational meetings. The message many took away from this is that might makes right, and the only way to get heard is to shout. We’d all like to see ourselves as reasonable and open minded, but some of what I witnessed on October 6 and 20 didn’t match that description.
Yes, most of the comments were measured and persuasive (or measured and inane—Obamacare, really?), but the overall impression was one of two rams butting heads until one conceded. Skoda and Corcoran chose to drop out of negotiations rather than compromise, leaving that to those, apparently, less pure of principle, since they both voted against the new contract. And many of the speakers seemed more anxious to attack rather than trying to reach board members. I initially thought it absurd that there were uniformed police at the meetings, but as the nights wore on, I was glad they were there. It shouldn’t have had to come to that, and regardless of who was most to blame for its needing to, everyone should examine why it happened in order to avoid future such displays.
A representative community group researching and recruiting board candidates could make this whole mess less likely, but hand in hand with that is voter participation. Board elections in District 86 have typically turned out very few registered voters, less than 20% in 2013. (In one of odder comments at the October 20 meeting, someone claimed that this paltry turnout wasn’t a problem since it was only slightly lower than the 2011 election. There’s a great civics lesson for you, kids: Don’t worry about an 18.12% turnout because it’s only slightly less than the previous election’s 18.96%.) Let’s hope that everyone has figured out that the position of school board member is too important for apathy and negligence to that degree. An informed and participating electorate could have prevented what happened this year and saved everyone a great deal of stress and worry. We’ll certainly see if that maxim has been learned this April 7, 2015, when three of the seven seats on District 86’s board will be elected. (For those of you interested in the particulars of this election, see http://www.dupageco.org/Election/37045/.)
So the most important community lessons with which we start this analysis are as follows: 1. Know what candidates for a school board stand for by thoroughly vetting them; and 2. Vote.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the whole issue of the teacher’s place in our communities and the need for unions as illustrated in the District 86 adventure.
For more on the importance of school boards and making certain school districts avoid members detrimental to public education, see my eBook, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.