Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Maintenance of standards" has caused problems but sometimes helps smooth changes

How a Controversial Rule Played Out in Other Schools
Voice of San Diego
Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009

As bargaining grinds on between San Diego Unified and its teachers union over its expired contract, a public debate has erupted over a few paragraphs of legalese.

Teachers and their union say a new proposal will help kids by preventing teachers from being overloaded with new duties. Opponents say it will allow the union to veto any changes to what teachers do -- even small ones -- by enshrining all existing practices in the contract. It has pitted the principals union against the teachers union, divided and perplexed parents.

Yet both its backers and its critics point out that the proposal, known as "maintenance of standards," is nothing new...

...In New York State, a similar rule has sometimes been frustrating for Assistant Superintendent Cora Stempel at the Hyde Park Central School District. For instance, the union invoked it when counselors switched from paper forms to an electronic system to change students' classes, contending that it was new work, Stempel said. It hasn't halted change in the school district, but it has made it more difficult.

Hyde Park now gives the union two weeks' notice before making significant changes, which often allows them to work out any problems in advance and avoid grievances. Even if a grievance was filed, Stempel said that wouldn't necessarily stop schools from making changes, unless the union ultimately wins and forces them to reverse it. But it may slow down or alter its plans.

If the union balks completely, it can sway the school district to hold off on an idea to avoid grievances that the union might win. The threat of a grievance -- and the desire to avoid it -- can steer their decision.

"It's just good practice to work towards consensus anyway," she said. "But there are times that there are things I'd like to do, and I should be able to make that decision. It's sometimes a struggle."

One of the largest school districts with such a policy is Jefferson County Public Schools, a Colorado system with more than 80,000 students. Union leaders said they used it to push the school district to discuss -- not bargain -- changes to the date teachers were paid. Robert Archibold, Jefferson's executive director of employee relations, said it hadn't been a problem for them because few issues weren't covered by their contract, which is highly specific. No new programs had been blocked, he said.

Still, "it puts the brake on the district just going around changing things without having a conversation with us," said Lisa Elliott, the union's executive director. She might invoke it to challenge whether the district can immediately change how it handles pay errors. "But it's only related to working conditions and pay. It's not saying, 'You can't get a new set of textbooks.'"

Some of the worst clashes over the rule are documented in Wisconsin. The Salem Joint School District tried to remove a similar rule while bargaining with teachers in 1992, complaining that the union had objected to schools encouraging teachers to help at a lunchtime salad bar and requiring teachers to make their own photocopies. It stated that six grievances were filed based on the clause in a single year, compared to just one that had gone as far as a hearing in earlier years...

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