Bargaining for the Long-Term with Short-Term Funds

Public schools across Michigan find themselves in an unfamiliar budgetary situation – more short-term revenue than usual due to the Elementary and Second­ary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds and unexpectedly robust state revenues. Labor unions will quickly recognize this circumstance, and will likely pro­pose significant wage increases during contract negotiations and wage reopeners. School negotiators must be prepared to oppose costly legacy increases that the district may not be able to later afford.

Before bargaining, arm yourself and your team with current data and board guidance. Schedule time to meet with the board to determine its financial and in­frastructure goals and to advise on financial data. These infrastructure goals are an important part of develop­ing an appropriate strategy for negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that will best meet the district’s and labor union’s long term interests.

It is also crucial to know the cost of the current collective bargaining agreement before you negotiate. Determine the number of teachers at each step/longev­ity level, the amount of a salary step increase, and how the district’s salary steps compare to those in neighboring districts.

Other important information to have for successful negotiations includes:

  • Relevant board policies, particularly regarding fund balance.
  • Enrollment data for the previous three years, as compared to neighboring districts, and the impact of COVID-19 on student numbers. These numbers impact both instructional and support staff bargaining.
  • Benefits offered and how they compare to the private sector.

Districts are tapping two primary funding sources: state funding and ESSER I, II and III. The state founda­tion allowance increased per pupil funding to $8,700.00. Each of the ESSER funds have defined terms and deadlines for use. Before a district commits ESSER funds to a collective bargaining agreement obligation, determine the following:

  • Must the funds be used to prevent, prepare for, or respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • Does the proposed use of the funds fall under one of the ESSER-authorized uses?
  • Is the proposed use of the funds permissible under the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards?

Finally, determine beforehand if there are concerns with existing collective bargaining agreement language. This is a good time to tackle long-standing concerns with language that have previously been left un­addressed. A review of notes from previous negotiations may help identify any language concerns. If the District is going to significantly increase compen­sation, now may be the time to claw back managerial rights in return.

Improvements to consider at the bargaining table include:

  • Paid and Unpaid Leave: Consider retracting PTO and expanded bases for paid sick leave. Review letters of agreement on COVID-19 related leaves. The goal is to align paid and unpaid leave and implement an integrated and consistent leave policy system.
  • Wage Steps: The current (and continuing) trend is to reconfigure step schedules. If this is an option, consider adding uniform dollar amounts, not percentages to maintain the same increments between steps. If the beginning salary is too low, consider eliminating the first few steps on the schedule rather than significantly increasing the whole schedule. Also consider the wisdom of adding steps at the top to boost wages of more senior employees whose salaries may have stalled. These techniques will target specific concerns with the compensation system without increasing the cost of the whole scale, and thus will result in lower legacy costs. As always, know what your neighboring districts are offering and agreeing to.

Negotiating a collective bargaining agreement can be daunting with all of the moving parts. Gathering cur­rent and historical data and understanding both the data and the funds in play will help you to negotiate the best possible agreement for the district while keeping union personnel satisfied.