Homework Before Education Contract Talks Continue

It appears that negotiations between the Eugene School District and the Eugene Education Association have stalled. Neither side will characterize the situation as an impasse, because educators know that words matter. But also nobody has described the current positions of the school board and the teacher’s union as “close.”

Negotiators now are planning to take a break until August, resuming their work just weeks before the new school year begins. I suppose they can insist, as high schoolers who have been given a summer reading list often do, that they do their best work under pressure. Putting things off for a month is no big deal, especially if it’s a sunny month.

A month apart should give both sides time to do some additional research before they return to the negotiating table. Let’s review what we’ve already learned and then see if we can chart a new course for the talks ahead.

Both sides certainly agree that the education of the city’s children must be everyone’s first concern. If a magic wand could be waved that would instantly eliminate all expenses that don’t help children learn, the only negotiating point would be who gets to wave the wand. We’re all in agreement on that.

The next point of agreement is more a matter of local and historical pride. Our school principals are given wide latitude to run their schools in ways that fit the teachers and the students inside their buildings. This local autonomy has contributed greatly to the vibrant mix of neighborhood and specialty schools that our community enjoys.

With so many different styles and emphases available in our education system, parents can and do choose schools that will increase their child’s learning opportunities.

We love our students and we love our schools. We’d like to see smaller classes, so teachers can give each of their students more attention. Teachers would like more prep time so this attention can be more purposeful and productive.

So the only sticking point is money, but not even that is a real point of disagreement. Both sides want to spend every dollar available on maintaining and improving education quality. Neither side has publicly advocated any sort of tax increase.

Dig a little deeper and it’s clear that the tussle is not over revenue, but expenses. All the money coming in should be spent, but spent on what? Do we want more teachers, but fewer salary increases? Better health care benefits, but fewer teacher aides? Better classroom supply budgets, but more furlough days?

You can see why both sides want to take a break.

Here’s a different way to look at things that might help both sides articulate the priorities that express their core values. In pedagogical terms, creating a diversion can reveal patterns from a new perspective. In language the rest of us understand, it’s easiest to untie a knot by tugging on whatever’s loose.

In 2005, a Utah entrepreneur named Patrick Byrne thought he had developed an elegant equation education reform. He advocated that at least 65 percent of all education revenue be spent in the classrooms. He wanted to lessen what he perceived to be administrative bloat, but his proposal went nowhere. Byrne went back to running overstock.com.

A related idea was floated in California a decade earlier. Reformers there sought to limit school district’s administrative overhead to a fixed percentage of the entire budget. That proposal also went nowhere. Defining who should be counted as an administrator turned out to be difficult.

But identifying where each district employee does their work would be easy. We can build on our tradition of local school autonomy and put our dollars as close to the children as possible. Administration is a key component to an efficient and effective education system, but locating more of that talent in the schools will prevent any “ivory tower” mentality.

So here’s a question for both sides to consider during their July break from negotiations:

What percentage of the school district’s personnel budget has been, is, and should be spent inside its administrative headquarters at 200 N. Monroe Street? Return prepared to discuss.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.