Labor negotiations with public employee unions remain one of the most opaque and intentionally hidden government processes in California. This is particularly frustrating in Palo Alto, where an engaged public expects more transparency and the opportunity for input.
To its credit, the Palo Alto school district is taking several baby steps toward opening up the process, including some limited sun-shining of the proposed agreements before they are actually approved.
This follows the closed session approval in 2016 of a disastrous three-year contract that was negotiated based on erroneous property-tax revenue estimates and without any public discussion, followed by a second embarrassing mistake the district tried to hide — its failure to notify the union it would exercise its right to cancel the final year's 3% increase because of lower-than-expected tax revenues. It was the final straw that led to the resignation of then-Superintendent Max McGee and cost the district more than $4 million.
Last week the district gave the public a head's up about two pending agreements, one with the teachers' union, the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA), and another with the non-represented group of about 75 principals, vice principals, deans, psychologists and other management employees, the Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA).
Thanks to stronger-than-expected projected increases in property-tax revenue this year of 7.4% (compared to the budgeted 2.8%) the tentative agreement with PAEA proposes a 2% salary increase, effective in January 2019 through the end of the school year, plus a 2% bonus. According the district, the agreement will cost the district $3.6 million in the current fiscal year, and $2.4 million in each future year (plus whatever increases and bonuses are approved later for future years).
The proposed agreement is currently being voted on by union members and will come before the board for public discussion and approval if it is ratified by the union.
The agreement with the management employees, who informally bargain as a professional association but are not a union, contains not only across-the-board salary increases equal to the 2% negotiated with the teachers, but a five-year commitment to use this practice of so-called "me too" raises.
Three of the five current school board members have strongly opposed such automatic increases in the past. Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza made their opposition clear in their 2016 election campaigns. Collins said the policy "does not make sense and should be replaced with an approach based on cost-of-living increases, with adjustments based on individual performance." DiBrienza said management raises "should be based on a range of measurable outcomes as determined by the district."
Board member Ken Dauber also criticized the automatic raises and voted against the controversial budget three years ago in part because of the "me too" provision.
After saying nothing about their change in position at Tuesday's board meeting, Collins and Dauber each later told the Weekly it was a worthwhile trade-off in order to get PAMA to agree to ditch a detailed nine-page memorandum of understanding that outlines procedural protections and other guidelines for their interactions with the superintendent. However, neither could cite any specific problems with the agreement.
The PAMA group was formed in 2006 after a revolt of principals in response to personnel actions and organizational changes taken by then-Superintendent Mary Frances Callan and the school board. The controversy led to her resignation and the development of the lengthy agreement that quieted the tension and has remained largely in effect ever since.
As Dauber, Collins and DiBrienza argued just three years ago, no well-managed professional organization should set compensation of its senior managers by tying it to a rank-and-file pay raise negotiated with a union. Compensating the highest-performing school principal identically to the lowest-performing one isn't fair and removes the most basic tool to managing and rewarding performance. We don't like the idea that well-paid managers have an unusual legacy agreement that includes detailed policies intended to outline and protect their rights, similar to a union contract. But unless problems with this agreement can be identified, agreeing to five years of "me too" raises in exchange for getting rid of it isn't in the public interest and shouldn't be approved.