to open teacher contract talks sparks debate
Capital News Service
March 5, 2004
LANSING – Negotiations between school boards and teacher
unions could be open to the public, allowing reporters and citizens to sit
in on contract talks under a controversial new proposal to broaden the state’s
Open Meetings Act.
But critics of the idea charge that such a change will have a “chilling
effect” on collective bargaining.
“When parties bargain in the media, the process never moves forward,”
said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, director of communications for the 170,000-member
Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest union of teachers
and other school employees.
Of the 1,200 MEA contracts around the state, 419 have yet to be settled, Trimer-Hartley
said. These include Hudson Area Schools’ 69 teachers who have been without
a contract since August 2002, and Escanaba Area Public Schools’ 191
teachers who have been without a contract since last June.
But Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, who introduced the measure, said he hopes
to stimulate discussion on the issue of closed-door negotiations.
“It seemed to me, because they’re dealing with public dollars,
those kinds of discussions should be out in the open,” he said.
The 1976 law requires all meetings of public bodies to be open, except for
contract negotiations, personnel evaluations, student discipline hearings,
real estate or other property purchases, consultation with attorneys and reviews
of job candidates. The change would apply only to collective bargaining sessions
involving school boards and intermediate school districts.
Kuipers admitted that school boards and teachers might not like the proposal,
but said taxpayers might favor the change.
However, he continued, “I have no preconceived notions about support.
I want to engage the topic and hear discussion from all sides of the issue.”
Meanwhile, Trimer-Hartley said reaching agreement is an arduous journey, and
politicizing issues and posturing before the media would be counterproductive
to sitting down and hammering out a deal.
“When school boards and others try to use the media, it has a negative
effect on bargaining,” she said.
She added that communities have the chance to review any agreements before
final decisions are made.
Dawn Hertz, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said the idea
that taxpayers who are unhappy with teacher contracts can vote out the school
board in the next election doesn’t solve the problem because the money
is already committed.
Hertz said she commends Kuipers for his goal of letting the public see more
of the process in contract negotiations. “Newspapers are always interested
in preserving access,” she said.
Getting two sides to come together on any issue is difficult enough without
the public weighing in, she said. But in the end, taxpayer input might bring
more information to the process, perhaps creating a more viable contract,
Don Wotruba, director of legislative affairs for the Michigan Association
of School Boards, said he expects his organization to oppose the change.
“At the end of the process we don’t have a problem with disclosure,”
he said. But if bargaining sessions are open to the public, unions that make
public appeals could have serious financial impacts on school districts.
The proposal has been referred to the Senate Education Committee, but Kuipers,
who chairs the committee, said he has not set a time for hearings. “If
there’s room in the schedule, I’ll see if we can fit it in.”
Copyright 2004, Capital News Service, Michigan State University
School of Journalism