Lawrence school district, teachers union hope new negotiation method will help avoid contentious process

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Federal mediator Stephanie Haynes, right, speaks to a USD 497 negotiations committee, which includes representatives for both the school district's administration and the local teachers union, the Lawrence Education Association. Haynes is leading a new negotiations process for the school district. LEA vice president Jeff Plinsky, left, is the co-chair for LEA's negotiation team.

Instead of meeting as two sides negotiating a contentious deal, Lawrence school district leaders and the Lawrence Education Association have begun creating a new teachers contract as one large group.

District administrators and members of the local teachers union met Thursday for the first of several planned meetings to negotiate a contract for the 2019-2020 school year. This year, they hope a new negotiating format will help both sides avoid a drawn-out and contentious bargaining process like the one that occurred last year.

Representatives for both sides are using a format called Interest Based Bargaining that will also include the use of a federal mediator, Stephanie Haynes. The format focuses on the negotiation teams working together to address issues and finding solutions that work for both sides, rather than each side making demands and holding on to them until the other side concedes, Haynes said.

“Instead of two teams where they are fighting for everything they can get, they are all one team,” she said. “We focus on issues, not demands and not personalities … We’re going to be doing a lot of talking and listening to each other.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Federal mediator Stephanie Haynes explains how the Interest Based Bargaining system works to the USD 497 negotiations group, which includes members from the school district’s administration and members of the local teachers union.

In its first meeting, the group addressed some of the “low-hanging fruit” issues, such as updating language and dates within the contract, and brainstormed ideas to create consistent practices in gauging teacher opinions when making building-wide or district-wide decisions. The group will consider teacher compensation and benefits and many other issues in future meetings.

Jeff Plinsky, who is co-chair for the teachers union negotiating team, said the new process was needed after bargaining a year ago became contentious and was drawn out for months after the school year had already started.

“This is an effort to change the tenor and tone and to be more collaborative,” Plinsky said.

For the 2018-2019 contracts, negotiations began in June and continued until Dec. 10. After two sessions with a federal mediator, the board agreed to a contract that the teachers union had voted 687-37 to approve. The approved contract gave all district teachers a $1,200 raise and increased the base pay of first-year, inexperienced teachers to $41,240.

Deputy superintendent Anna Stubblefield, who is co-chair for the administration negotiation team, said she felt good about the process after the first meeting. She said it has given everyone in the group the ability to speak on issues and hear each side’s thoughts and concerns.

“It felt more like a conversation trying to accomplish the same goal, rather than trying to win,” she said.

Plinsky said he agreed with Stubblefield, but he expects some “fits and starts” when bigger issues come up down the road.

“I’m looking forward to more work like this where we can look at pretty big, thorny problems and hopefully find some solutions (so) that the contention of past years can be prevented,” he said.

Haynes said she is impressed with the group’s first meeting, noting that she felt they are very invested in the new negotiating process.

“People came here and took the process seriously,” she said. “They really engaged with a spirit of openness.”

The public negotiations will continue with meetings scheduled for 4-8 p.m. at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive, on the following days: Tuesday, June 11; Tuesday, June 18; Tuesday, June 25; Thursday, June 27; Tuesday, July 23; and Thursday, July 25.

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