By involving principals in planning for negotiations, districts can better address the important operational and instructional issues that will help schools meet their student achievement goals

Negotiating away barriers to educational opportunity: by involving principals in planning for negotiations, districts can better address the important operational and instructional issues that will help schools meet their student achievement goals

Ruben L. Ingram

There is a paradox in negotiating agreements between the governing board and the unions. After wrangling for months over the terms and conditions, a tentative agreement is reached. Normally, the governing board accepts the tentative agreement, and then by a vote of the membership, the union agrees.

The district now has labor peace for a defined period of time, and there is an audible sigh of relief from the board, the staff and the community. All parties hail the agreement as a boon to morale and clear sailing that will benefit students and the educational program.

There are only two things wrong with this picture. First, it would be a very unusual agreement that addressed any aspect of student achievement and increased educational opportunities. Second, the principals and site administrators who are responsible for the success of the educational program, the increased measures of accountability and the proper implementation of the contract may or may not have been consulted prior to and during the negotiations.

The interim report of the California State Legislature’s Joint Committee to Develop a Master Plan for Education found that “the large amount of time and energy spent on negotiations of salaries and benefits often leaves local boards and their administrative staffs struggling to adequately address other important operational and instructional issues.” Interestingly, this language was deleted from the final report.

A report from American Educational Research Association found that using principals as consultants and seeking their input during the negotiations process caused them to use greater discretion in managing their sites and programs than in districts where their input was not used (DeMitchell, 1996).

The issue of linking negotiations to student achievement and increased educational opportunities was discussed in a previous issue of Leadership magazine (Ingram, May/June 2003). This author stated, “Parents, citizens and elected officials must be encouraged and trained to address the instructional and educational issues that are slighted or ignored at the bargaining table.”

The paradox is that in those instances when principals were not consulted prior to settlement of an agreement, it is they who must manage the instructional and educational program within a rigid set of work rules and negotiated processes and procedures that often are real barriers to meeting district goals and accountability measures. Yet, these are the leaders who could tell us at the beginning where those barriers are in the contracts and proposals.

A review of just two studies in two areas helps define those barriers: evaluating low-performing teachers and rigid work rules.

Evaluating low-performing teachers

Suzanne Painter recently asked elementary and middle school principals in Oregon and Arizona to identify barriers to evaluating teachers and improving their school and its programs (Painter, 2001). One of the major barriers identified was in evaluating low-performing teachers. Note that the barrier was not evaluating all teachers, but specifically the low-performing ones. The principals in the study cited teacher tenure laws, time constraints, teacher unions and collective bargaining as the major impediments to doing the job.

In California, the tenure laws are in statute rather than in negotiated agreements. For many years, principals had three years in which to observe probationary teachers and make a decision regarding whether or not to recommend them for tenure. In 1983, SB 813 changed that to two years, and as all administrators know, you are really looking at a year and a half because a decision has to be made in the middle of the second year in preparation for the March 15 deadline for giving notice.

In the last legislative session, AB 954 (D-Goldberg) was passed and signed into law. It allows for principals and competent, experienced teachers to agree on holding performance appraisals once every five years, as long as both parties agree. This is an example of how collective bargaining laws can be modified to help improve the quality of education.

Principals are also often limited as to the number of observations and conferences they can hold; the time at which conferences with teachers and staff can be held; and the quantity and quality of resources that are available to help teachers and staff meet acceptable standards of performance.

Principals must have rights too. While statute, case law and negotiated agreements give employees the right to have a union representative at a conference with the principal when there is a possibility of disciplinary action, principals should have a second administrator in the conference as well. In our system of justice, testimony is a major element. No principal should be exposed to a two-on-one situation where it is his or her word against two others.

Principals also need backing and support from the board and superintendent when rating a teacher as “needs to improve” or “unsatisfactory.” The board and superintendent can either embolden principals to hold teachers to standards, or they can chill the entire process not only by their actions, but by their words and behaviors.

A 2002 survey by School Employers Association of California revealed that in a sample of 25 school districts that included more than 12,000 permanent teachers, only 24 teachers were rated unsatisfactory and referred to the Peer Assistance and Review program. That is not even a quarter of 1 percent (Ingram, 2002).

The Oregon and Arizona principals in the study previously cited (Painter) said that the collective bargaining agreement itself was a barrier to evaluating low-performing teachers. Often the contract article on evaluation is very prescriptive regarding the process and the timelines. While the standards of performance are not subject to bargaining, the form and the process are subject to bargaining. It is, however, very difficult to separate the two because the standards are often on the form.

The California Standards for the Teaching Profession have become the standards by which teachers are evaluated in many districts. There are restrictions in many negotiated agreements that require the principal to rate more than one domain unsatisfactory in order to refer the teacher into the PAR Program. Principals need the ability to rate any one domain as unsatisfactory and cause consequences to take place.

Finally, in terms of resources available to principals in helping unsatisfactory teachers in PAR, the union convinced the Legislature and the governor to give control of those resources to the teachers rather than the administrators who are responsible for the results of performance to standards. Principals should be able to direct those resources.

Rigid work rules

“Rigid work rules prevent the flexibility and autonomy schools require to meet educational missions,” according to a 1999 New York City report (Ballou). That report cited transfer of teachers, discipline and termination, non-instructional obligations, work hours and conditions, meeting time with students and administrators, class size, preparation periods and lack of principal authority as interfering with quality education. California principals face the same issues and need relief from them too.

Teacher transfer and assignment should always be in the interest of the students and the programs. When teachers (and all employees) are hired into a district, they became district employees, and while they have a legal property interest in their employment, they do not have an ownership in any particular assignment. No school employee is in private practice. Principals are held accountable for instruction, student safety, staff safety, facilities and resources. They should have the authority to organize the staff and program to meet those obligations unrestricted by union contracts.

Teacher discipline and termination, especially of tenured teachers, often is politically threatening. Backing from the board and superintendent is critical when these kinds of actions become necessary. Community reaction is often involved. The contract should not add to an already difficult situation. Due process rights in the contracts are important, but those rights should not protect poor performance and unsuitable employees.

Mature contracts have been molded in good times and bad. When money is plentiful, salary and benefit improvements occur, but when money is not plentiful or available at all, unions seek other concessions. For teachers, those tend to be such things as relief of non-instructional duties like playground duty, student activities, parent contacts and clerical responsibilities. Administrators cannot take over and handle all these without staff assistance or other costly resources.

Another disturbing trend in contracts has been to limit the amount of time the principal can meet with faculty and staff, and limits on when parents and administrators can meet personally with teachers. These rules governing work hours, conditions and meeting times undermine school-wide efforts at team-building, communication, planning and evaluating the progress of the educational program. Good leadership encompasses all of these things.

California instituted a class size reduction program for grades K-3, and while there is not yet convincing evidence of a positive effect on learning, no one would dispute that smaller is better for students and teachers. Where the statute went wrong was in not allowing principals some moderate flexibility in managing the program. This is not a new issue, but one that has always been with us no matter what the maximum class size.

Elementary principals have always faced the difficult decision of whether to create combination classes in order to meet maximums. At whatever level the maximum is established, principals need flexibility in making pupil assignments.

Preparation periods are another instance where principals need flexibility and some measure of control. While teachers should not have these periods imposed upon regularly, there are times when principals need staff assistance, and times when parents need to meet with teachers.

Finally, the overall authority of the principal to make decisions must be strengthened. The most important authority needed by principals is in the assignment of staff. Not only does the principal need the ability to assign teachers to classes and programs, but also to direct their training and development, their adherence to curriculum standards, their use of appropriate materials, the administration of student testing and evaluation, and student/parent contact and communications.

Principals as consultants in negotiations

The examples cited in the previous discussion beg the question of whether or not principals should be an integral part of the negotiations process. The answer is obviously yes. With most ideas and practices there are variations of application. The involvement of principals currently ranges from actually being part of management’s negotiating team to brief and cursory questions at the beginning of new negotiations as to what they think about the contract.

If principals are true instructional leaders of their schools and programs and are accountable for the success of those programs, then their role in the negotiating process must be defined, expanded and supported. Fifteen ways to involved your principals in planning for negotiations are listed in the box on page 29.

Sample contract goals to support principals and instruction

Here are some examples of broad goals to consider as contract language is directed toward supporting principals and instruction. The specific contract language needed to make proposals should be constructed locally to suit each situation.

1. Observations and conferences

* Observe classroom instruction at any time, either announced or unannounced.

* Hold conferences at any time during the duty, day, and outside the duty day with flexible compensatory time off.

2. Resources

* All instructional and support resources are at the direction of the administrators.

3. Principal support

* An additional administrator is available for disciplinary conferences when the teacher has a representative present.

4. Unsatisfactory evaluations

* Minimize the number/degree of unsatisfactory service necessary to rate a teacher unsatisfactory.

* Direct the improvement plan.

5. Transfer and assignment

* Transfer any employee who is performing satisfactorily, but is not suitable for the location.

* Assign all teachers and staff to positions for which they qualify.

6. Discipline and termination

* Grievances are not permitted in disciplinary cases that are within due process.

* Full governance, administrative and legal support are offered in cases of legitimate terminations.

7. Non-instructional duties

* Direct staff during the duty day.

8. Meetings

* Hold faculty and staff meetings at any time within the duty day, or outside the duty day when necessary.

* Direct staff in meeting with parents and school events.

9. Class size

* Maximum flexibility in assigning students to classes.

10. Preparation periods

* Direct staff at any time during the duty day.

11. Authority

* Full control over staff assignments, curriculum standards, training and development, use of materials/resources, testing and evaluation, and parent/community contacts.

Site administrators: major players

While negotiations are a district-level responsibility and process, the activities affected most by contract language happen at the school site. The implementation and proper administration of negotiated agreements happens at the school sites more than at the district level. More important, instruction takes place only at the school sites.

If bargaining is to be transformed into support for student achievement and educational opportunities for our students, then the site administrators must be major players in constructing the policies that contract language really is.

Involve your principals and gain their support and commitment. The result will be better leadership on their part, more attention to student achievement and accountability measures, and more efficient and effective operations.


1. During the period of contract administration–that is, after contracts have been settled and before the next round of negotiations–provide your principals with a supplement to the contracts that enables them to keep notes on problems or issues. Train them in how to keep such records and require them to do so. Have them record issues raised by staff. Inform them of the intent of the current language.

2. As a new round of negotiations approaches, meet with principals, discuss their records, and organize the issues and concerns according to each article in the contract.

3. As a group, set goals for improving the contract, including rationale for each goal and any supporting documentation.

4. Either as a group or divided into committees, develop remedies, solutions and improvements to the issues identified.

5. Provide staff or consultants to meet with the principals to propose and review new or revised contract language relevant to the identified areas of concern.

6. Review the proposed language and the implications. Train the principals in analyzing the new language and its consequences. Measure against the goals that were set.

7. Ask the group to prioritize the goals and the new language.

8. Train the group in explaining the goals, the language and the rationale.

9. Appoint principal representatives to the management negotiating team.

10. During negotiations, have the principal representatives report back to the total group on a regular basis.

11. Use the representatives to train their colleagues in explaining and supporting the district’s proposals.

12. When the contract is settled, use the representatives to train the total group in how to administer the contract.

13. Use the representatives as resources for other principals when problems occur.

14. Rotate the representatives from contract to contract, or unit to unit, in order to involve as many principals as possible over time.

15. Reward the representatives with thorough preparation and training, including such opportunities as conference attendance, subscriptions and special recognition.


Ballou, Dale. (1999). “The New York City Teachers’ Union Contract: Shackling Principals’ Leadership.” Civic Report Number 6, New York City.

DeMitchell, Todd A.; Barton, Richard M. (September 1996). “Collective Bargaining and its Impact on Local Educational Reform Efforts.” Educational Policy, Vol. 10, No. 3.

Ingram, Ruben L. (May/June 2003). “Putting students first.” Leadership magazine. Association of California School Administrators: Sacramento, CA.

Ingram, Ruben L. (2002). “Peer Assistance and Review: A Survey of 25 Selected California School Districts.” School Employers Association of California: Irvine, CA.

Painter, Suzanne R. (2001). “Barriers to Evaluation: Beliefs of Elementary and Middle School Principals.” Planning Change, Vol. 32, Nos. 1-2.

Ruben L. Ingram is executive director of the School Employers Association of California.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Association of California School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning