Michigan School Board Shows Laudable Commitment to Bargaining Transparency

The good people at the Education Action Group (EAG) Foundation have provided another interesting update into email inboxes, including to my Education Policy Center friends:

These days, high-stakes contract negotiations between Michigan school districts and teacher unions are as commonplace as a Justin Verlander strikeout. What makes Traverse City’s negotiations unique is that taxpayers are finally able to keep tabs on the progress.

School districts and teacher unions have a long history of conducting contract talks behind closed doors. It isn’t until both parties have signed on the dotted line that taxpayers learn the details of the deal – even though the contract directly impact citizens’ children, community, and checkbooks.

Teacher unions have long resisted public involvement in negotiations, arguing that it would lead to chaos. But that’s an absurd argument. Taxpayers don’t need a seat at the bargaining table. They do, however, deserve to be kept informed of the proceedings, so they will know how their tax money might be spent.

Now there’s an interesting dynamic, a school board actually demonstrating commitment to public transparency in union negotiations. Sounds a lot more like Colorado Springs 11 than Jeffco Public Schools. Sure, northern Michigan is a long way from here. But Colorado education leaders and policy makers can (and should) pay heed.

I don’t necessarily agree with EAG’s statement, “Taxpayers don’t need a seat at the bargaining table,” but it may be a difference of nuance. Of course, it’s not productive to allow any average person off the street to disrupt negotiations through (invited or uninvited) participation in the proceedings. However, I still think it’s a good policy to leave the door open — as has been done in Poudre School District (Fort Collins), now joined by District 11 — for public observation. Mike Antonucci is right:

If you open up negotiations, you change the dynamic entirely. The public becomes party to the bargaining. District negotiators are reminded they ostensibly represent the public, not just the administration. Unions are faced with a question they would rather not contemplate: If we are bargaining for the teachers, who are we bargaining against?

Still, what Traverse City Public Schools is doing is better than the status quo in many states and districts — including Jeffco, where for awhile at least, elected school board members were in the dark about what was transpiring in negotiations. Jeffco and all Colorado can learn from Traverse City and do better, too.