June 4, 2010

Correcting the facts on so-called RTTT "side deals"

In Wednesday's paper, St. Petersburg Times reporter Ron Matus relied on the sloppy language "some say" to spin a mountain out of a molehill about county-specific MOUs between school boards and local FEA affiliates. In the article as well as two blog entries Wednesday and Thursday, Matus stated that there were a number of counties with local memoranda of understanding (or MOUs) and quoted one individual who said that the existence of what Matus called "side deals" might be a problem for Florida's application. Matus stated that his source Andy Rotherham had helped other states with RTTT applications, but the article did not state whether that was in the context of consultancy contracts (i.e., whether Rotherham's new organization had its reputation and business at stake in competition with Florida's RTTT application).

The omission of any mention of Rotherham's business concern is minor compared with the failure of the Times to look at the content of the side deals and see whether they modified the obligations of local parties vis-a-vis the state Memorandum of Understanding that most districts and unions signed across Florida. Since Ed Week has gotten into the story, albeit without quoting Rotherham, it's important to look at the facts.

First, the issue of impasse. Language from the state MOU (part of the RTTT application):

Only the elements of this MOU which are contained in existing law are subject to the provisions of section 447.403, Florida Statutes. (p. 3)

Explanation: F.S. 447.403 is the part of Florida's public-employee collective-bargaining law that covers impasse. In other words, if there's a part of the MOU that is not already a term and condition of employment under Florida law, it's not susceptible to the impasse procedure. That point is clarified in the attachment the Times education blog noted was part of many counties' documentation.

The Broward side agreement in its entirety:

Any items relating to the RTTT Application or Plan that are unsuccessfully negotiated between the parties specifically for the purpose of applying for or receiving the RTTT grant award will not be subject to the impasse procedures set forth in Chapter 447.

Can someone explain to me why this is any different from the state MOU? But there's a second issue that Ed Week's Michele McNeil discussed: "these side deals also say that any changes successfully negotiated because of Race to the Top will expire once the funding does," and refers to the Hernando County MOU. But on p. 4 of the state MOU, Part IV explicitly states that the state MOU expires "upon the expiration of the grant project period, or upon mutual agreement of the parties, whichever occurs first."

The question one might logically ask is why some counties and locals felt they needed extra language. The FEA had a long weekend discussion with state leaders and local leaders about the state RTTT application this time around, and from news coverage it looks like FEA President Andy Ford was strongly encouraging locals to sign on. The reason why was pretty clear: he had had a seat at the table in the task force Charlie Crist set up in the week after Crist vetoed SB 6. When you've had a hand in crafting changes, you've got a stake in success. In addition, the additional language had taken care of one of the legal concerns of FEA bargaining-support staff, because the MOU from the first application in Florida looked like it might give school boards the ability to impose contracts on matters beyond what is currently in state bargaining law. Unlike in many northern states, Florida school boards have the authority to impose contract terms under impasse for a the duration of a fiscal year, but only on mandatory terms and conditions of employment as defined in Florida law.

In January, FEA had cautioned locals not to sign the MOU, and it crafted language for the few locals who wanted to sign (including one large county, Hillsborough). The language FEA crafted for the locals in the first RTTT round? It specifically exempted issues from impasse when the issues were not already in state law. (I don't have the exact wording in front of me, but I am sure an intrepid reporter could ask the Hillsborough press rep for it.) In that case, it's clear that the local MOUs created legal conditions different from what would have been the case with a signed state MOU and no local MOU. So when similar language appeared in the state language, why did some local teachers unions sign essentially redundant local MOUs? Let's just say a generous level of suspicion about the process.

The greatest problem with this coverage of the county-specific MOUs is that it's a distraction from serious issues of reform implementation with RTTT. The issues Matus and McNeil have raised in the context of local MOUs exist with the state MOU. But instead of focusing on the substance, the reporters are focusing on the process issue. It's a legitimate question to ask what the right balance is in collective bargaining on the scope of bargaining, on the relative power of the parties, and on state law that can essentially dictate terms and conditions of employment outside bargaining. In a state like New York, bargaining authority leans more towards unions than in Florida, and likewise state law. Northern states are the ones to have seniority-preference laws that trump the bargaining process, and Florida has had several statutes trying to mandate all sorts of things unions would be very unlikely to agree to in local collective bargaining.

It's also a legitimate question to ask about the commitment of parties to reform after the money runs out. That is one of the critical questions with the DC teachers contract: what happens if/when the billionaires pull out? The billionaires' support of DC along with RTTT present a theory of action all about inertia: if we can just budge districts away from current practices, we'll accomplish long-term structural changes. In contrast, Denver's ProComp was in the context of a permanent funding stream and a political deal with voters: give us the money permanently, and there is a permanent change in compensation practices.

Those issues are still out there, and they're out there whether or not a particular state has an MOU like Florida's. I understand why this reporting on process exists, especially in a rush to print news, but am disappointed that two good reporters have perseverated on an apparent process issue without checking the details of their assumptions (i.e., whether the local so-called "side deals" are substantively different from the state MOU).

Disclosure: I am a former member of the FEA governing board. (I have not corresponded with elected FEA leaders about the reporting on this story, but I want to be open about my former position within my state affiliate.)

Update (9 am EDT): After I posted this earlier in the morning, Valerie Strauss published an entry on the topic in the Washington Post blog she writes, largely repeating what the Times had said. I also corresponded in the last hour with one reporter interested in the story, and one of the empirical questions is whether the local MOUs in Florida are more like Broward (short and redundant) or more like Hernando (which was much longer and with elements McNeil discussed in her blog entry yesterday afternoon). There's also a broader question about state administrative authority. Suppose a superintendent of a district in any state receiving RTTT funds decides she or he isn't going to follow one of the requirements. She or he just didn't put it in writing. Does the state's obligation to eliminate participation and cut off funding for that district change? As I said earlier this morning, the broader and more interesting questions are not really about local MOUs.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 4, 2010 6:01 AM |