Better Decisions Sooner

November 28, 2007

Every three years, the Concord School Committee (CSC) and Concord Teachers’ Association (CTA) negotiate a new employment contract. This generally happens quietly, behind closed doors, and culminates with a short announcement of the agreement in the Concord Journal. The most recent round was different and was the inspiration for this web site. Here’s my personal take.

In the spring of 2007, Concord teachers began wearing buttons and t-shirts that read, “186 days without a contract.” Each day, they would erase and rewrite the number to show that another day had passed without a new contract. I heard reports of children coming home after school and asking questions like, “Why aren’t we paying our teachers?” and “Don’t we like our teachers?” I wrote an email to Sharon Young, principal of Alcott School, expressing my view that it was not appropriate to expose elementary school students to such a complex issue. You might be able to convince me that high school students should be exposed (what a great way to learn about unions and collective bargaining), but not elementary students. The issues involved are too sophisticated and would be more likely to create stress than educational insight.

As you might imagine (and probably remember) parents began asking about the contract negotiations. Despite the absence of any formal communication from the CSC or CTA, it became broadly understood that the sticking point was half-day Tuesdays. Concord is one of a small number of towns that still set aside half a day a week for professional development and classroom planning. The CTA wanted to continue that tradition whereas the CSC wanted to implement a “5 equal days” schedule.

The CTA issued a press release confirming that half-day Tuesdays were indeed the sticking point, and sharing its belief that Concord parents value Tuesday afternoons as a chance to do all sorts of creative and wonderful things with their kids. The CSC responded with its own missive, asserting that what parents really want is five equal days and that they had the data to prove it. No data was ever released.

Things got uncomfortable for me personally when one of my children’s teachers asked us to host a coffee so the CTA negotiator could present her position to parents. “Of course,” we said, “provided we can have a CSC representive present to explain the other side of the issue.” Apparently, they found somebody else to play host.

At this point, buttons brandished, coffee consumed, facts notably absent, rumors swirling, and still no contract, I did what any responsible citizen would do: I wrote a letter to the editor of the Concord Journal! “Negotiations not succeeding… parents being asked to choose sides… very uncomfortable… please give us the facts so we can have an informed opinion.” All week I hoped, I prayed, that somebody would respond to my letter. Just one response, something to move the debate forward. I received several phone calls, a few emails, but no public response.

Having spoken to a bunch of parents about the issue, I knew that many others were just as uncomfortable as I, and yet none of us had an outlet to debate the issue. I talked in a previous post about the critical role of discourse in solving “wicked problems” (and this qualified as one of those). Wouldn’t it be great if there were a place people could go to debate issues openly? To conduct simple surveys to build a fact base for their arguments? Sure, some people attended a coffee and others had the chance to discuss it during school drop-off or pick-up, but many (if not most) parents were left uninformed and without a voice.

If SchoolPulse were around last spring, our school community could have had a rich, constructive debate about half-day Tuesdays and I’m guessing we might have reached a better outcome a little sooner with less acrimony.