Utah District Cuts Ties with Teachers Union

Published July 19, 2011

Tough economic times have pushed a Utah school district to end formal bargaining relations with union officers and to draft a new, nonunion contract individual teachers must sign in order to keep their jobs.

On June 28, the Ogden City School District (OCSD) board ratified a “common contract” for teachers, formally ending the Ogden Education Association (OEA)’s exclusive right to represent district employees in negotiations for salaries, benefits, and working conditions. The decision ended 15 months of unsuccessful efforts to renegotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

“The sticking point in negotiations was the awarding of steps,” said Ogden Superintendent Noel Zabriskie, referring to automatic pay raises accrued through seniority. “We couldn’t continue using ongoing money for that when there isn’t ongoing money.”

Reconfiguring Contracts
As a preliminary measure, the board set 2011-12 salary increases between seniority-based steps for Ogden teachers at just over 3 percent—these previously ranged from 1.7 to 6.3 percent. Facing revenue cuts from the state and committed to avoiding tax increases, the school board has drawn from a rainy-day fund to boost compensation without cutting programs.

The district sent individual contracts to continue employment to all teachers on June 30. Zabriskie said roughly half of the 700 contracts had been signed and returned as of a week before the July 20 deadline.

Union leaders have reacted strongly, organizing several public protests to decry the end of their exclusive bargaining. 

“This unprecedented act by the OCSD to bypass collective bargaining and dictate a new contract is stunning, and undermines the positive collaborative relationship teachers have enjoyed with the district for the past several years,” OEA Executive Director Rick Palmer wrote to the local newspaper.

‘A Bold Move’
Utah is one of nine states in which school boards may participate in collective bargaining but are not required to do so, according to the National Right to Work Foundation. 

Local policy analysts applauded Ogden officials’ exercise of their legal discretion. 
“We think the district is doing a good thing. It’s a bold move,” said Derek Monson, manager of public policy for the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute. 

The district is committed to working long-term with teachers to overhaul compensation, the lack of formal collective bargaining relations notwithstanding, Zabriskie said. The school board aims to phase in a full-fledged merit pay system by 2016-17, gradually tying larger shares of teacher salary to performance-based measures. 

“We know there are some teachers who do better, and we need to reward that,” he said.
Ogden’s superintendent says this type of compensation reform has been a board conversation topic since he began working there five years ago.

Designing Performance Pay
There is a growing consensus that compensation systems should incorporate multiple measures of teacher performance, says Susan Burns, program manager for the National Center on Performance Initiatives at Vanderbilt University. 

“It’s important for there to be more than just a test score or a gain score,” Burns said.

Monson said a wide range of reliable measurements can be used in deciding whether to reward classroom instructors, included in an established rubric that guides principals’ performance evaluations. 

Burns cautions against raising expectations or drawing definitive conclusions about what a policy change like Ogden’s might accomplish. “The solid research around performance pay is very thin,” she said. “A lot more work needs to be done.”

But Monson notes the dominant salary schedule in K-12 education has failed. 

“The current pay system based on experience and seat time and educational attainments doesn’t necessarily reward [teachers] for performance. It doesn’t lead to good student outcomes,” he said.

Goal: ‘A Spirited Organization’
OCSD is one of only three of Utah’s 41 school districts that are “minority-majority.” Nearly a quarter of the district’s 12,500 students speak English as a second language, and 74 percent are eligible for federal lunch subsidies because of family poverty.

“They have special difficulties up there that a lot of school districts don’t have,” Monson said. “Those students are in difficult straits in many cases.”

Ogden’s superintendent said pay-for-performance will improve the teaching workforce and lead to improved classroom results.

“The goal we would have is a spirited organization, not only hard-working but working smart, helping students learn and giving them every opportunity,” Zabriskie said. “Every one of our students is deserving of quality instruction.”