School Contract Talks Benefit Only Those with Secrets to Keep

Bob Wickers
Vice president of operations for the Freedom Foundation, a national organization working to promote liberty, free enterprise and limited, accountable government.

United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing the city’s 30,000 teachers, spent nearly two years in fruitless negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District before calling a week long strike that finally ended on Jan. 22.

But not before costing the school district ( i.e., the taxpayers) $125 million — to say nothing of the expense and inconvenience faced by families forced to accommodate 600,000 students needlessly sent home when they should have been in the classroom.

The contract agreed to at the strike’s conclusion included:

* • a 6 percent across-the-board pay increase;
* • more teachers, counselors and nurses added to the payroll; and,
* • $403 million in new education spending over the next two years.

Oakland teachers, in turn, are currently demanding an even more generous package — including a 12 percent pay raise.

And depending on which side of the fence you’re on, that might sound like either a sweet deal or a drop in the bucket.

But the point is, no one really knows.

And we’ll likely never know, because all the bargaining sessions were — and will be — conducted behind closed doors.

Consequently, taxpayers will never know whether the school board members — all of whom, by sheer coincidence, are former teachers — drove a hard bargain or soft-balled their former comrades.

By the same token, teachers paying upwards of $1,100 a year for union representation will simply have to take UTLA’s word that it didn’t leave even more money on the table.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In most states, including liberal-dominated Oregon, transparency is the rule when it comes to contract talks with public-sector unions. In others, like Washington, there’s no legal barrier to open negotiations, but union pressure and capitulation from complicit politicians make the practice all too rare.

California, never one for half measures, has gone to the trouble of outlawing transparency.

In 2015, the state legislature passed, and then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law, a bill authored by former state Sen. Tony Mendoza that barred municipalities from adopting so-called COIN (civic openness in negotiating) laws.

Unsurprisingly, Mendoza, a one-time teacher and member of UTLA, cashed checks worth more than $486,000 from unions between 2014 and his resignation from the California Senate in 2018 amid sexual misconduct allegations.

His legacy is an arrangement ensuring that education questions affecting millions of students statewide — and untold billions of taxpayer dollars — must be decided in secret conclaves between unions and, in many instances, school boards populated by hand-picked union operatives.

It’s a great deal for the unions and the politicians whose palms are greased with union dues money, but a lousy one for California’s kids and their parents.

Opponents of open negotiations argue public scrutiny is counter-productive because it encourages participants to preen for the cameras and take unreasonable positions rather than engaging in thoughtful compromise. But that reasoning fails to account for human nature, to say nothing of political calculation.

Elected representatives and union officials alike, suddenly forced to satisfy their respective constituencies, will be less likely — not more — to misbehave if they know their actions are being watched.

In fact, transparency is the best assurance that all parties are negotiating in good faith and representing who they’re supposed to.

Taxpayers have every right to know whether elected school board members are safeguarding their precious resources or working in cahoots with a union from whom he or she has accepted campaign contributions.

Likewise, rank-and-file union members are entitled to know how forcefully their surrogates are advocating on their behalf.

None of which is possible when negotiations are conducted beyond the public’s view.

Simple logic tells you there’s only one reason why either side or both would insist secrecy is a better policy than transparency — because they’re doing something they don’t want you to see.

Which is all the more reason why you should demand to see it.

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