San Dieguito school board debates interest-based bargaining approach

As the San Dieguito Union High School District (SDUHSD) looks to negotiate with the San Dieguito Faculty Association and Classified School Employees Association this fall when the three-year contract expires, trustee John Salazar has questioned the makeup of the district’s negotiating teams.

At the June meeting, Salazar asked whether the district could explore the possibility of having a board member involved in the negotiations, and trustee Mo Muir wondered whether they could hire an independent mediator. At the board members’ request, a discussion on the district’s current interest-based bargaining approach was put on the agenda for discussion at its July 16 meeting.

Salazar said his main concern is that there is a conflict of interest with staff being at the negotiating table.

“There’s an inherent conflict there because the negotiation has a potential increase in their salary,” he said. “The board could hire an outside negotiator who wouldn’t be conflicted.”

District President Beth Hergesheimer said she was not in favor of having a board member in on the negotiations, citing a recommendation from the California School Boards Association (CSBA).

“The CSBA does not recommend that board members be part of a school district’s bargaining team. Having one or more members of the board participate in negotiations can create conflict — both at the bargaining table and at the board table,” she said.

According to Hergesheimer, the CSBA believes the school board should speak with one voice, giving direction to the bargaining representatives as a full board.

“If a single board member participates in bargaining, that board member has greater opportunity to shape and influence the contract than his or her colleagues,” Hergesheimer said. “Other board members might perceive this as an unfair advantage.”

Hergesheimer said that since most board members don’t have experience with labor negotiations, the board’s responsibility is to define its desired outcome, and how to achieve it becomes the responsibility of the staff.

“Our five elementary districts are the same community and the same taxpayers, and they do not have board members sit in on negotiations or work with professional negotiators,” said Superintendent Rick Schmitt.

Schmitt said many safeguards are built into the negotiating process before anything becomes official, such as county approval, and he has trust in the district’s employees.

“The interest-based approach has been used for decades here and our employees really do put the interests of the district, student and taxpayers first,” Schmitt said. “That shows mutual interest and not self-interest.”

Schmitt said the district has agreed to zero raises seven times without any mediator or board member in the room, while during the same time period, districts around them agreed to raises of 6 percent to 18 percent for staff. SDUHSD staff has received salary increases periodically, with a regular step-and-column compensation schedule but no straight raises.

Terri Norton, associate superintendent of human resources, said an outside negotiator also wouldn’t have the inside knowledge of the day-to-day issues within the district. Trustee Amy Herman agreed that it would be a “shame” to bring in outside people with no knowledge of the district’s history and to see the process possibly become confrontational.

“To move away from (interest-based bargaining) would be such a disservice to taxpayers, students, teachers and classified staff,” said trustee Joyce Dalessandro. “I don’t feel that any argument could justify a departure from an interest-based bargaining approach.”

Schmitt agreed that the current process and format has been working and he believes it will work well again this fall.