When school employee unions and their districts quickly arrive at agreements over compensation and benefits during contract negotiations, it's a signal that either the district was overly generous or that both sides put a priority on finding common ground and avoiding a public controversy.
The Palo Alto Unified School District and its unionized employees and non-union managers made the surprising announcement last week that they had arrived at a tentative salary agreement for the current school year, months ahead of the usual time in the spring.
Credit goes largely to the fact that the district's financial condition is stable due to conservative budgeting and continued robust growth in property tax revenue. But it's also a sign that stability and normalcy is returning after years of tumultuous management and an ill-fated decision in 2016 to enter into a three-year agreement that led to a mistake that cost the district $4.4 million in unintended employee increases.
While some important details of the new tentative agreement haven't yet been released, it will give employees a 1% salary increase retroactive to the beginning of the school year, a 1.5% one-time bonus and an additional ongoing unspecified increase if property tax revenues for this year exceed the district's current projection of 6%.
These increases are in addition to the so-called "step" increases that teachers automatically receive due to their years of experience and the number of academic units they obtain after attaining a bachelor's degree. It also doesn't include extra pay to those who have earned advanced degrees. In other words, the total salary increase for most teachers is more than what is publicized each year when the union contract is finalized.
Last school year, school district employees received a 2% raise and a 2% bonus. (One-time bonuses are used to avoid increases that carry-forward, providing a school district with some protection against unpredictable or inconsistent revenue sources, but they have become a standard practice almost every year.)
The school board, which has advised Superintendent Don Austin and Deputy Superintendent Karen Hendricks in closed sessions during the last two months of negotiations with the unions, will discuss the tentative agreement and hear public comment at its meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5. The district has not yet released details of the potential increase tied to a greater-than-budgeted property tax revenue increase or any analysis of the impacts of any of the increases in future years' budgets, so the potential magnitude of total compensation increase isn't yet clear.
But based on what is known, in his second Palo Alto district contract negotiation Austin appears to have not only achieved a reasonable deal with the unions but also brought a small amount of transparency to the process.
Unlike in past years, the district is willing to settle the compensation aspects of the contract before other elements under negotiation are resolved. Austin said the resolution of the financial issues would allow for "substantive contract language discussions to occur throughout the remainder of the year void of distractions."
Typical of opaque union negotiations in Palo Alto, the public has virtually no idea what "substantive" issues remain to be negotiated. Last April, when the prior year's contract was finally adopted, the district and teacher's union identified three items they had agreed to negotiate in addition to compensation and benefits: hours, leave provisions and working conditions. By resolving the compensation and benefit issues now, both sides give up potential negotiating leverage on the other issues.
Also unaddressed publicly is the status of revisions to the teacher-evaluation process, a requirement of the current union contract. A committee of administrators and teachers was to have begun work by the end of last school year with the intent of implementing a new pilot evaluation system for the 2020-21 school year. An earlier contract had established a two-year trial, which was extended for a third year, in which students were able to provide feedback as part of the teacher-evaluation process. That practice was halted at the end of the trial in 2018 without explanation.
One important positive development in this year's negotiations is Austin's decision to post a summary of the compensation and benefit proposals and counterproposals on the district's website during the negotiations. While these updates didn't provide much insight into the actual discussions, they did show how each side responded to the other's proposals.
It's a small but significant step, and as negotiations continue on the non-compensation issues to be covered in the union contracts, we hope Austin will continue and expand this practice so the public can follow along instead of being kept in the dark until a final deal is struck.