Editorial: A Revealing Glimpse; Cornish Learns About Contract Talks

Our guess is that few of the 160 or so Cornish residents who attended their school district meeting Saturday were surprised to learn that serious differences about pay and management prerogative divide the School Board and teachers union, resulting in the two sides failing to agree on a new contract. Unexpected, perhaps, was the unimpeded view they were provided of the negotiations, a process that generally remains behind closed doors until agreement is reached. It was both refreshing and enlightening.

Although detailed information about the stalled contract negotiations hadn’t been made public before the meeting, that didn’t stop residents from discussing the topic, which often seems to be the case. As staff writer Mark Davis reported, difficulty in working out an agreement is not the norm in the Cornish School District, and the current impasse had touched off speculation about the sources of friction.

That might explain why Superintendent Middleton McGoodwin was fully prepared to respond when Christine Bourne, a teacher and the union’s lead negotiator, spoke at the meeting and seemed to assign much of the blame to the School Board.

“It felt to us that they didn’t really come to negotiate, and as a result deprived you, the voters, to have your voice heard in the process,” Bourne said.

McGoodwin responded with a 30-minute presentation asserting that unresolved differences over the terms of the contract, not a lack of good faith on the part of the School Board, accounted for the failed negotiations. McGoodwin identified two issues in particular as sticking points: one, the board wanted pay increases to come via an overall raise (rather than through step increases that are awarded for length of service); and second, in the event of teacher layoffs, the board wanted flexibility to factor in performance and education level, rather than exclusively use seniority to determine who is let go.

That the public has a serious stake in how both issues are resolved is obvious. An across-the board pay raise would be less expensive for the school district — taxpayers, that is — than step increases. And allowing administrators discretion to factor in performance and not just longevity when and if layoffs become necessary is a powerful tool for retaining the district’s best teachers. That’s not to say that the union doesn’t have some legitimate counterarguments — including, perhaps, a concern about whether administrative flexibility might translate into arbitrariness or whether longtime teachers might be penalized simply for enjoying higher pay levels — but these issues are of central importance to the people whose children are being educated and who are paying the bills.

Nevertheless, making public what is normally kept private stirred some discomfort at the meeting. Nicole Saginor, a former superintendent, said she didn’t appreciate what she regarded as the contentious tone of McGoodwin’s presentation. And Bourne seemed perturbed that the union’s initial bargaining position was made public — both sides generally retreat from their opening offers, after all.

Those concerns seem to underestimate the public’s capacity for understanding that the collective bargaining process is, by its very nature, adversarial and dynamic.

Granted, contracts can’t and shouldn’t be negotiated in public. At the same time, there’s much to be said for taking advantage of situations such as the current one in Cornish, where an impasse has provoked speculation about what’s going on, to pull back the curtain and allow the public a look at the issues dividing the two sides. It’s Cornish residents who send their kids to school and their tax payments to Town Hall, after all; they might appreciate the opportunity to weigh in.