Many Indiana schools rushed to complete contract negotiations so that they could temporarily avoid a new law which limits what can be discussed in a collective bargaining agreement.
Peggy Chamber is the HR director at the school district in Monroe County. She has seen a lot of contracts and it’s always the same: the local teacher’s union comes to her to work out a new agreement. In some ways, this year was no different. The district and union got together at the usual time and eventually came to terms. In return for a 4-year contract, the district received from the union permission to extend the school day.
Had the negotiations taken place after July 1st, the corporation could not have negotiated a contract longer than two years or written the length of a day into the deal. That’s because under a new state law passed in April, schools and unions can no longer negotiate over anything but wages and benefits. And so both sides did whatever they could, to get whatever they could, in advance of the law.
One reason legislators changed the law is because of a sense that this broad bargaining power was getting out of hand. They constantly cited a contract where even the color of the walls in the teacher’s lounge was used as a bargaining chip.
In reality, contracts or collective bargaining agreements mostly address things like grievance procedures and the length of the workday. But some opponents say it can get out of hand.
Dale Chu heads the legal department at the Indiana Department of Education. He was key in promoting the new limitations. He says Monroe County wasn’t alone in trying to rush into a new agreement before July 1st. In fact, he says many districts went to fairly extreme measures to lock-in agreements before the deadline hit.
“We’ve had corporations that have contracts longer than 3-to-4 years.” said Chu. “I remember some corporations that signed like an 8 or 10-year contract.”
Chu says this could be disastrous for school districts that have not put careful financial safeguards in place. He says if there is no flexibility built into the contract, then the district could easily find itself in a position of being forced to spending more to meet the conditions of the agreement than they bring in to pay for it.
But for many administrators, like Peggy Chambers, it might not simply be about money. Chambers says her district went to great lengths to postpone the new law because the language of the legislation is extremely confusing. At a symposium she recently attended, Chambers saw that a panel of labor lawyers couldn’t even make heads or tails of the statute or how it should be interpreted.
“There were four attorneys on a panel accepting questions from the audience and it was interesting to note that a question was asked and one attorney says yes, the next attorney says no, the next one says maybe, and the last one says I don’t know,” said Chambers.
The problem is this. Many phrases like wages and wage related benefits are not clearly defined in the law.
Kenneth Dau-Schmidt is a lawyer who teaches at Indiana University and started his career writing legislation for the Minnesota House of Representatives. When we asked him to look over the new law he found difficulties right away. He pointed specifically to a provision that prevents unions and districts from negotiating over grievance procedures.
“I think that what the authors might say is that we left that open to the school board. If they want to have a system of arbitration they can impose one,” said Dau-Schmidt. “But the problem with imposing one is that they are a state actor and you have a 7th amendment right to a jury trial and the state can’t come in and impose a system on you that takes away that right.”
That’s just one of Dau-Schmidt’s many concerns. He expects the law will get tied up in the courts and ultimately may never be able to do what the lawmakers who proposed it intended. That’s a problem for someone like Peggy Chambers, who says schools aren’t trying to be scofflaws; they just don’t want to find themselves in the middle of a lawsuit.
Districts like Monroe County are enjoying a sort of nervous honeymoon. Until their current contract runs out in 4-years it will be other districts sitting in courtrooms and at the bargaining table. But eventually, even they will have to step back into the realities of a new and less open way of talking to and working with teachers and their unions.