Bristol-area school boards and employees embrace collaborative approach to contract negotiations

BRISTOL — With contract negotiations now successfully concluded, a school district that just two years ago found itself bitterly embroiled over leadership, trust and communication issues has now emerged as a leader statewide in embracing a collaborative approach to employee contract negotiations.
The Mount Abraham Unified School District (as the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union is now called as it moves toward unification) negotiated its next two years of professional and support staff contracts using what’s known as the Critical Issues Bargaining (CIB) process.
CIB is widely seen as a win-win approach to contract negotiations that engages stakeholder groups in working toward common goals rather than negotiating from fixed positions.
Superintendent Patrick Reen called CIB “an effective alternative to traditional bargaining.”
It helped “both parties find mutually acceptable terms that will support our collective work of educating the students of our five-town community,” Reen said. “Whereas negotiations in the past have, at times, damaged relationships in ANeSU, this round of negotiations has strengthened relationships through developing a common understanding of the issues and exploring possible solutions in a collaborative, respectful, productive manner.  
MAUSD is among the state’s earliest adopters of a collaborative approach to bargaining. According to federal mediator Cynthia Jeffries, who provided training and facilitated the MAUSD negotiations along with colleague Annie Rutsky, the Bristol-area school district now joins schools in the Washington Central Supervisory Union, which have been using a collaborative approach for the past four years.
“Positional bargaining (the term for the more typical approach to contract negotiations) is more of an us vs. them approach, a more reactive approach,” said Kristin Blanchette, chair of the MAUSD/ANeSU Bargaining Council. Now in her third round of employee negotiations, Blanchette has first-hand experience of both approaches.
“With the collaborative approach, you come up with the issues and then you try to come up with solutions, which is a completely different process,” she said.
“With the traditional positional bargaining, you never get to hear from the other side why they have an issue. You really don’t. People are just figuring what chip can we trade for what,” she added. “But it’s a very surface process, whereas this is a much deeper process. If you’re willing to listen to other people, you can come to a different understanding.”
The district’s first steps toward embracing the CIB process came during the fractious fall of 2015, as teacher contract negotiations hit impasse. Only months earlier, ANeSU teachers had overwhelmingly declared a vote of no confidence in then-Superintendent Dave Adams. Mediator Jeffries recommended both parties get training in the Relationship by Objective approach to conflict resolution.
This spurred board members, teachers and support staff toward learning about and then deciding on using Critical Issues Bargaining in this year’s contract negotiations.
“We wanted to change our negotiating style,” said Mikaela Frank, president of the Addison Northeast Education Association teachers union.
The process began early last fall with two training sessions led by Jeffries and Rutsky. In mid-December 2016 negotiations began in earnest. Frank and Blanchette both explained that Jeffries and Rutsky were on hand throughout the entire process, but as facilitators not as mediators per se.
To begin the process, explained Frank, both sides came in with interest statements (which turned out to be almost identical), then worked to establish common interest and brainstorm possible solutions. Each possible solution then went through a feasibility thumbs up-thumbs sideways-thumbs down gauntlet until consensus was achieved.
Discussions centered around the commonly agreed upon statement: How can we ensure a competitive and sustainable package for our employees at a cost the taxpayers will support?
In a five-way interview with the Independent, negotiations leaders from all stakeholder groups — Blanchette and Vice Chair Krista Siringo for the school board, Frank for teachers and professional staff, and Deirdre Zele for the ANEDA Education Support Personnel — all agreed that the process brought multiple benefits to all stakeholders.
For one thing, this year’s negotiating protected the district’s bottom line.
Said Blanchette, “We saved tens of thousands of dollars on fact finding and lawyers, and this settlement is within the bounds of settlements that have occurred in the state.”
Negotiations also happened more efficiently because the board, teachers and support staff groups negotiated health care all together.
All four also pointed out that because the process involves truly listening to the other party it achieves better solutions than traditional, positional approaches to bargaining.
And all emphasized that alongside achieving all of those laudable goals, the process also built good communication and good relationships — critical to the district’s ability to move forward.
Having served as ANEDA president for close to a decade, Frank noted the difference in relationships that has resulted from the CIB approach.
“This process was kind of that final bridge for me to build back that relationship and the trust with the board and with the administration,” she said. “And it was an absolutely incredible thing to be a part of and to be able to sit in a room with people that I now consider friends and that I have a high level of respect and trust for and to be able to have those conversations and to ask hard questions and to be able to have that clarification.
“I think the process was successful because of the people that were at the table. As Kristin (Blanchette) said at our last final meeting on Monday:  ‘The people at the table matter and everybody that sat at that table had the kids in the forefront and how do we work from there and how do we reach consensus. It was a very trust-building environment.”
All noted that as a new approach to negotiations, sometimes folks needed a nudge away from the old positional style.
“We had to wholeheartedly believe in the process in order to end up where we did,” Zele said. “Of course, we had some challenges along the way with some people who were still kind of stuck in the old way of things. But as a leader, I wholeheartedly believed that we could do this. So we went in with that transparency and willingness to talk and be honest and be open with each other and figure things out.”
Siringo, who’s also on the MAUSD board, said now that the district has this experience under its belt, it will build on this approach, including forming a new labor-management committee.
“I feel really confident after this process that as that new board moves toward negotiating future contracts we’re in a really great place to do so,” she said. “We’ve built a really strong foundation. Going through this experience first has put us in a really great place to have those conversations with a degree of trust that was not there before. And I think people are really willing and excited to be working together to iron out some of those other things outside negotiations that feels really proactive and beneficial for everyone.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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