School district, teachers union pop the cork on a new contract

PHOENIX — Negotiations for a new contract between the Phoenix-Talent School District and its teachers' union went so well that the two sides concluded it with a celebration at a winery.

"We settled a contract in record time that everyone felt really happy with," said Cally McKenzie, the district's human resources director. "It was set up to be really amicable and interactive."

A two-year contact that begins July 1 was approved by the School Board on June 17. A contract for the two previous years wasn't reached until Feb. 25, 2012 after more than a year of bargaining, allegations of bad faith filed by the district and an all-night session.

This year was very different.

"At the end of the negotiations we all went over to a board member's winery and had a celebration," said Carol Cox, president of the Phoenix Talent Education Association. "I don't know if we could have done that before."

Teachers at the district's five schools unanimously approved the contract when it was presented by the bargaining team during meetings, Cox said.

Rather than using traditional bargaining methods, the negotiations were based on interest-based bargaining, in which the two sides begin by sharing their goals and aspirations and look for common ground.

"I think that traditional negotiations tend to put people on sides," said McKenzie. "... They tend to have winners and losers."

Salary increases and work issues were included in the new contract.

Cost of living increases will be one-half percent in the first year of the new agreement and 1.5 percent in the second year. Teachers who have reached the top step of the salary range after 16 years of service will get stipends of $1,000 in the first year and $850 in the second.

District contributions for health insurance purchases will increase $30 per month in the first year and $20 in the second year for monthly totals of $1,060 and $1,080 respectively.

Negotiators agreed to three unpaid furlough days at the end of the 2013-14 school year, but those will be restored if the budget allows. This year the district had seven furlough days, one less than in the contract.

Other provisions include creating a more formal arrangement for teachers with large class sizes to ask for assistance and setting aside 11/2; nonteaching days specifically for teachers to complete records that track students' progress as required under a new state teacher evaluation system.

In traditional negotiations, teams exchange written proposals with little interaction. In the interest-based model, participants meet together.

"(Previously) you started at opposite ends of the table and tried to come together," said Cox. "Here we shared our goals and interests."

Eight half-day sessions were held from April 28 through June 3 following training by a facilitator. The group included five teachers, two board members, four administrators and an Oregon Education Association representative.

The process started with a seemingly large list of hopes and expectations, said McKenzie. When the group reviewed the list at the end, it found it had achieved those goals and more, she said.

"I think the interest-based process make both side more aware of the issues, the potential solutions, the whole thing," said Brad Jones, a high school teacher and negotiation team member. "It seems like it was a lot less confrontational working together."

"On a couple of issues that were brought up, all we needed was some discussion," said McKenzie. "We were not having an issue at all, we just needed some clarification."

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at

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