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Union-District Partnerships on Display at Urban Education Conference

As state lawmakers across the country have enacted laws that chip away at the collective bargaining powers of teachers' unions, one might expect city superintendents to be cheering such moves.

But the school leaders brought together for a panel Friday at The Council of the Great City Schools expressed mixed feelings about the new policies, which generally have restricted the power of unions to negotiate for anything other than wages.

Some changes were needed, "but I think it went too far," said Eugene G. White, the superintendent of Indianapolis schools and one of the panelists. Winston Brooks, the superintendent of Albuquerque schools, said teacher evaluations are supposed to help teachers get better, not be punitive. "I think people deserve a process," he said.

The wide-ranging discussion on union and school district relations was the final panel in the convention, held this year in Boston. In addition to Brooks and White, the other panelists included Wilson Wilson, a senior staffer with the Albuquerque Teachers Federation; Andres Alonso, the superintendent of Baltimore schools; Ann Wilkins, the president of the Indianapolis Education Association; MaryEllen Elia, the superintendent of Hillsborough County schools in Florida; and Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, the executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.

The moderator of the panel was former ABC journalist Carole Simpson, who opened the discussion by saying that she was a graduate of Chicago public schools, a member of two unions, and an opponent of No Child Left Behind, based on what she sees now from young students in the college classes that she currently teaches. One young woman, Simpson said, could not find Virginia on an unlabeled map of the United States.

The union representatives and district leaders outlined several broad areas of agreement, including on the importance of having the best leaders in the classroom and creating strong school administrators.

However, Candy Olson, the vice-chairwoman of the Hillsborough County school board, noted during the question-and-answer session that all the panelists were probably selected because they do have strong relationships. "How do you help unions and management who don't know how to get along? How do you help them figure out you get a lot further if you work together?" she asked.

Alonso answered by talking about his first years in Baltimore, which were marred by union distrust. Union members picketed school board meetings and talked about holding a no-confidence vote in his leadership, just three months after he became leader of the system. The collaboration between the union and school district is stronger now because they recognize their common interests.

"Sometimes, someone has to make a leap that is huge," said Alonso, talking about his push to eliminate step increases from teacher contracts and instead tie salaries to performance and contributions to the school.

"For a year, it was 'no way.' Then the two negotiating teams found out they see schools in the same way. My job became, 'how do I protect you in this conversation?'"

The changes he sought were eventually enacted in 2010, and the agreement has been called one of the most progressive teacher contracts in the country.

"We had spent enough time touching everyone who was affected by this," Alonso said. "The real danger is that it takes so little for things to go downhill."

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