BARRE — A newly merged school district will try a new approach to negotiations, because the old one hasn’t always worked well.
The shift to “interest-based bargaining” is coming very soon to the two-town, three-school Barre Unified School District, where School Board negotiators huddled privately on Tuesday in preparation for contract negotiations that are set to start in a new way next month.
Instead of trading proposals, as is customary in traditional bargaining, the Dec. 4 session will focus on identifying “goals” and “issues” that each side would like to address as part of a collaborative collective bargaining process. That process is designed to produce new agreements before the current contracts — one for teachers and the other for support staff — expire June 30, 2020.
Both sides have scheduled twice-a-month bargaining sessions through May and have embraced an approach to negotiations that has received rave reviews in what is now the Washington Central Unified Union School District.
Since shifting to interest-based bargaining two contract cycles ago, school and union negotiators in Washington Central have credited the process with enabling them to reach agreements that are both timely and mutually beneficial.
That’s now the goal in Barre, where negotiations haven’t always finished on time and have occasionally been less than cordial.
It took a teachers’ strike that shuttered schools for several days in 2005 to bring a divisive round of negotiations to a close; five years later, school board negotiators unilaterally imposed working conditions on teachers, ending another protracted round of negotiations. That one-year arrangement was replaced with a collective bargaining contract nearly a year after it expired.
Though the last round of negotiations wrapped up just ahead of schedule and required no outside assistance earlier this year, that wasn’t the case last year. Following the public release of a fact-finders report in December 2017, a mediator was able to broker a settlement in January 2018, even as teachers were picketing in City Hall Park.
Hoping to put that history behind the new district, negotiators will enlist the assistance of the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service as they give interest-based bargaining a try.
Based on favorable feedback from Washington Central, it isn’t a process that ends in compromise, but one that relies on collaboration. Finding an acceptable middle ground between competing proposals isn’t the goal, because there are no competing proposals, just expressed interests. The idea is to craft an agreement that addresses those interests together.
In Washington Central, negotiators have said interest-based bargaining has helped focus the collective bargaining process on core interests, saving time and leading to more productive discussions.
Done right, it eliminates the adversarial nature that often accompanies traditional bargaining processes and streamlines what is discussed based on the shared interests of both sides.
An intentional decision to limit the list of items that were discussed during negotiations earlier this year, helped negotiators reach a relatively speedy settlement. The two sides agreed at the outset that health insurance would be left alone and the duration of the contract — one year — was fixed by state law.
That brought a focus to negotiations that produced a positive result, and officials are hoping the use of interest-based bargaining will be useful moving forward in a district that includes pre-K-8 schools in Barre and Barre Town, Spaulding High School and the Spaulding-based Central Vermont Career Center.