How can district leaders ensure that union contracts do not stifle creativity and innovation in their districts? Too often we hear about innovative ideas that never leave the planning room or get blocked before launch due to contractual language. When collaboration is valued and partnership is practiced between district leaders and union members, districts can embrace and sustain the innovations that lead to greater student success.
The Meriden Public Schools—with 8,000 students and 700 teachers—have benefited greatly from our collaboration and utilization of memorandums of understanding (MOUs), agreements between two parties that can be used to make adjustments to union contracts. This article describes some of our successes and challenges in those collaborations.
Regular Collaboration Time
Our first key initiative, Professional Learning Community (PLC) Data Team Thursdays, began with an MOU. Teachers agreed to teach five minutes more every morning, and five minutes more every afternoon except Thursdays. This teaching time came from teacher wraparound time—time when teachers had to be on campus but were not delivering direct instruction. As the district gained 45 minutes of instructional time with this change, we released students 30 minutes early on Thursdays so our teachers could have regular, dedicated time for collaboration and data analysis with their colleagues.
Expanded Learning Time
A memorandum of understanding also allowed us to launch expanded learning time at all of our neighborhood schools; students attend school for 100 minutes more per day, equaling over 40 additional days per year. The MOU allowed teachers to flex their schedules, with some teachers working 7:15 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. and others working 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Also supported by the MOU was allowing community partners—those agencies that have traditionally worked with our students before and after school, like Meriden YMCA, Meriden Boys and Girls Club, and Valentin Karate—to work side-by-side with our teachers during this new reengineered school day. Lastly, the MOU allowed teachers who wanted to work the additional 100 minutes to receive a $7,500 stipend.
Program Sustainability: The expanded day program was a huge success, and district and union leaders were pleased with the results. However, the challenge was ensuring that we had enough certified teaching staff on site and working with our students at all times. So the union and management signed another MOU that assured that three—and then six—teaching positions at each expanded-day school require teachers to work the additional 100 minutes for the agreed-upon stipend. Teachers who took these positions were aware of the requirement and knew they would have to apply for a non-expanded-day position if they no longer wanted to work the additional time. This ensured program sustainability.
Inconsistent Transportation: When late buses were impacting our ability to get teachers to their PLC Data Team meetings on Thursdays, our central office and union leadership identified the problem during a no-agenda meeting—the need to change district bus schedules to accommodate all schools—and worked with our transportation provider and building administrators to ensure that we didn’t jeopardize this initiative moving forward. The solution: We limited the number of double runs and changed the bus routes to maximize the number of students on all buses.
District and union leaders recognize that memorandums of understanding are a key vehicle to bringing new innovations and student-centered initiatives to our schools and students without violating union contracts. Below are three steps that have helped us use MOUs to create more flexibility and resources with time, space, and money.
1. Build Union and Management Partnerships: District leaders—assistant superintendents and senior level directors—meet once a month with union leadership for a three-hour block to establish a productive working relationship and agreed-upon norms of operation. We define a productive working relationship as solution focused and student centered. Students are at the center of the discussions, and we share openly and don’t blame. Our agreed-upon norms—be honest, inclusive, optimistic, realistic, and accountable—are based on Rob Jenkins’s “What Makes a Good Leader?”
2. Know and Respect the Contract: District leaders know the contract and respect this legally binding document. Respecting the contract doesn’t mean eliminating core initiatives because of concerns about contractual language. It means sharing with union leaders where contractual language is blocking progress and working together on a viable solution. For example, our contract read, “Teachers are entitled to reasonable regular time and work schedules.” An additional 100 minutes per day would have violated that contract. Our solution: We created an MOU with $7,000 in compensation—now $7,500—put into place for teachers who worked the extra time.
3. Evaluate Initiative Value and Place in Future Contracts: District and union leaders should carefully scrutinize and evaluate all initiatives operating under memorandums of understanding. If the initiative evaluation is positive, district and union leaders should memorialize the MOU by including the language in upcoming contracts.
The MOU process has given our school system an opportunity to pilot new initiatives without the fear of the program becoming permanent or binding. Both union and district leaders know that the memorandums of understanding provide a window of time to evaluate the program and determine if it’s something that should become part of a binding contract. In essence, the MOU process allows staff and management to try something out first before locking us into an agreement that doesn’t meet the needs of our students.