Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Setting TPS priorities

It's gratifying that Toledo Public Schools and its teachers union suspended their power struggle long enough to preserve a $10.8 million federal grant  that the district and its 25,000 students could not afford to lose.

It would be equally nice to think that a spirit of collaboration in the interest of young people, rather than demands for capitulation in the interest of institutional control, will guide new contract talks between TPS and its three employee unions. Nice, but probably not realistic.

Even as the school system works to reinvent itself on the fly, it must negotiate new labor contracts to replace agreements that expire June 30. The outcome of that bargaining will largely determine the success of the TPS reform effort.

During the next school year, the district faces a projected deficit of $37 million within a general fund of roughly $300 million. That figure will change to account for the state aid TPS would lose under Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal, but the hole will remain huge.

The TPS reform plan seeks to cut costs without jeopardizing classroom quality or access. The new attendance areas the Board of Education approved this month reflect the district’s shift to neighborhood grade schools from middle schools.

Much of what the district wants to do will require unions’ agreement. The district also is warning it will seek “fundamental revisions” of economic contract provisions: across-the-board cuts in employee wages and benefits, higher costs to workers for their health insurance, and compensation based more on performance and less on strict seniority.

Since employee pay and benefits account for nearly 80 percent of TPS spending, it’s hard to see how the district can balance its budget without such concessions. But the controversy over the state’s new collective-bargaining law for public employees makes clear that Ohio unions aren’t in a mood to sacrifice much of anything to state and local governments.

The dispute over TPS’ grant from the federal Race to the Top school-reform program, aimed at strengthening poor-performing schools, provides a case in point. Last month, Schools Supt. Jerome Pecko canceled two union-backed programs governing teacher evaluation, discipline, and compensation, claiming TPS no longer could afford them. He promised to work with teachers to retain those programs’ key features in new forms that he said would align more closely with the goals and rules of Race to the Top.

But the Toledo Federation of Teachers withdrew its support for the federal grant, claiming Mr. Pecko had acted unilaterally on an issue that required the union’s approval. Only after the superintendent agreed last week to rescind his earlier cancellations did the union end its hostage-taking. The fate of the two programs at issue presumably will be determined in the bargaining process.

TPS need not, and should not, go as far as the new state law does to seek to strip public workers of collective-bargaining rights. But in this round of contract talks, the school district must achieve the savings it needs and must regain management prerogatives that previous administrations myopically bargained away.

Seniority alone cannot exert excessive influence in determining pay, classroom assignments, or layoffs when they become necessary. The district should be able to pay good teachers more and get rid of bad ones, based on objective measures of performance rather than favoritism, without running afoul of archaic union work rules.

Such agreement won’t come easily. It may not come at all. But as TPS and union negotiators haggle over new contracts, they might spare a thought from time to time for constituencies that don’t have seats at the bargaining table: students, their parents, and Toledo taxpayers. Their interests need to be protected, too.

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