School district-teachers union collaboration works for kids

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By Mark D. Benigni, Ed.D.

One might wonder why a school superintendent is concerned about Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a U.S. Supreme Court case that would hurt the ability of working people to negotiate together for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Shouldn’t labor and management have competing goals? The answer for me, and many of my fellow superintendents, is an emphatic “No.” When labor and management bargain and work together, we can help our kids succeed.

For years, I have worked closely with our local teachers union. I doubt the Meriden (Conn.) Public Schools would have some of the most innovative teacher-quality and student-learning programs without the Meriden Federation of Teachers as the school district’s loyal partner.

Labor-management collaboration is in the DNA of the Meriden Public Schools. The members of the Meriden Federation of Teachers are the classroom experts, working every day with students, collaborating with their peers, talking with parents and taking professional development courses to enrich their skills and knowledge. School district leaders work with them to move our district forward. Together, for example, we have designed and implemented a peer coaching program, a leadership academy for teachers, additional time for teachers to discuss student data and expanded learning time for students.

Take the expanded learning time initiative. Union, management and community groups worked closely to figure out the best way to use the time productively and how to make it fair for teachers working longer hours. The innovation and flexibility that resulted stem from true collaboration. It’s just one example of the power of a district, a teachers union and community partners coming together to take a bold, creative idea and make it a successful reality for students and teachers.

The entire Meriden community benefits from the voice of teachers and their union. Yet the Friedrichs case would make it harder for union members like teachers and school support staff to come together, speak up for the people they serve and get ahead themselves. Those behind this case seem to want to engineer the rules of the game to create an imbalance of power and make it difficult for employees to have a say on the job. I’m thankful to be able to partner with a strong union around shared goals for our students, schools and communities, and I value and respect this partnership.

Right now, everyone can choose whether or not to join a union at work. No one is forced to join a union, and no one is required to pay any fees related to a union’s political activities. While unions support their members, unions also help the people they serve, our children, and the districts where they work.

The time has come for us to stand up together and not allow our teachers, and their unions, to be blamed for all of society’s challenges. Those who question the dedication of our teachers or fear the positive impact of unions should come to Meriden. Our teachers, led by their union, enabled children to have an additional 100 minutes for such enrichment programs as fitness, multicultural arts, online literacy and numeracy, woodworking, technology and engineering, science and math, and academic intervention. Of the 9,100 students in our district, more than 70 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, and 76 percent of our graduates pursue higher education. I am inspired by the work of our educators and proud of the work we are doing together to make a difference in the lives of every child.

Benigni is superintendent of Meriden Public Schools, Meriden, Connecticut.

Read the article on The Hill’s website.