Thursday, December 30, 2010

He said/she said, and a modest proposal

It must be confusing to Neshaminy residents to figure out exactly what happened Tuesday night. School Board president Ritchie Webb says that, according to the state appointed mediator, the NFT was not willing to discuss health care. Teacher's union boss Louise Boyd says they were ready to discuss anything and everything. Yet no meeting took place.

It's hard to imagine how two sides can say they are ready to talk about the same things but somehow Tuesday's negotiation meeting never took place. Quoting from a famous movie, an editorial in today's Courier Times refers to it as a failure to communicate. Any way you look at it, this isn't the first time that both sides have had different stories about the exact same meeting. There is a possible solution to this, but I'll save that for later in this post.

Yesterday the NFT's PR firm issued a press release saying that one of the contributors to Tuesday's debacle was a "Blogosphere Sideshow" (sounds suspiciously like "freak show" to me), and that the board is being “Egged on by the teacher-bashing crowd whose venom up to now has been confined to blogs and websites" and that "the district’s negotiators conjured a confrontation that didn't exist, suggesting that teachers are unwilling to compromise.” Ms. Boyd then insisted that their history of negotiations demonstrates their willingness to compromise.

The press release also attempted to explain Boyd's comment to the Inquirer where she said the NFT would not be making concessions as a give-back to the community. According to their PR guru, "Boyd merely stated the belief of NFT members that it is not fair or equitable for the school district to expect teachers to take a cut in overall compensation when their duties and responsibilities are expanding."

But isn't a net reduction in overall compensation exactly what the board and community are looking for? Teachers haven't been asked to take a pay cut or freeze, but they have been asked to start kicking in for health care premiums, and to give up some of the exorbitant benefits they've enjoyed like a $27.5k retirement perk or a very liberal salary step plan. The NFT sees these as cuts while the board/public view it as bringing our costs into line with other districts.

Next year's Act 1 inflationary limit is 1.4%, which means roughly $1.6 million to our budget - that is how much we can increase tax millage in Neshaminy next school year without a referendum. I seriously doubt a referendum would pass, so that doesn't leave us with many options. Either we find ways to reduce our greatest cost driver - labor, or we start cutting student programs. And as you've heard me say time and time again, I am not prepared to do the latter.

So where do we go from here? My suggestion is that we schedule another meeting but let's agree on the agenda prior to the meeting. The agenda should be an official document that is made available to the public so there can be no doubt what is to be discussed. And that leads me to the last point I want to make - how to avoid any more he said/she said incidents . . .

Up until now, I believed that negotiations should take place in private with public updates following afterwards. It's been nearly three years and that hasn't worked, not at all. So now I believe it is time we open up negotiations to the public. I would like to see a small group of observers, including 3 random members of the public and a Courier Times reporter, be invited to all future negotiations. The panel can only observe the proceedings and are not allowed to comment during. However, all are free to speak publicly about what they observed.

Don't get too excited about this idea because it won't likely happen. Even if my fellow board members liked the concept, I'm not so sure that the state mediator or NFT would agree.

So 2010 will end the same way the previous two years did - no progress. Maybe if both sides can agree to change how we negotiate, perhaps 2011 might hold a chance for change.

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