Colchester School District Holds Open Negotiations Between Teachers and the School Board

Superintendent Larry Waters offers the following letter to the community regarding a groundbreaking approach to negotiations.

“Once again, the Colchester Education Association (CEA)—which represents teachers—and the Colchester School Board (CSB) have entered another round of contract talks. Historically, such negotiations have occurred behind closed doors (i.e., in executive session) with little or no information released to the community, and only when the final language was agreed upon were the terms and conditions provided to the public. This approach—akin to sharing the ending of a book or movie with someone but leaving out the story—left many community members skeptical about the negotiations’ process and outcome.

“For the first time, and in a monumental and progressive transformation, the CEA and CSB have agreed to hold as many negotiation sessions in open meetings as possible. This simply means that the board will call its meetings to order, allow for public comments, and then conduct contract negotiations that are open to viewing by the community.

“This concept sounds relatively simple but is in fact challenging for both parties. How were the CEA and the CSB able to arrive at this point?

“The prevailing notion about negotiations is generally that the parties begin at diametrically opposed positions with the hope of eventually arriving at a mutually acceptable compromise. Though this frequently holds at least some truth, there may be a more effective and increasingly beneficial strategy to employ. Suppose we begin by discussing the goals we desire to achieve in the negotiations process … and perhaps we discover that we share the same goals?

“One would think that, if we have similar goals, achieving agreement might be easier. The following list of goals was established during the first round of discussion:

  1. Recognize the Colchester School District Vision and Strategic Plan 2012–2017 and its pathways as a guide to decision making
  2. Provide students with rigorous educational programs and teachers who have highly proficient instructional skills that address our current and future learning needs
  3. Provide professional development programs for teachers so that they may implement strategies that address the needs of all students
  4. Recognize highly skilled teachers with competitive salaries and benefits that reflect the community’s ability to fund them
  5. Conduct the negotiations process in a professional and respectful manner
  6. Build trust and transparency with the Colchester community, and
  7. Achieve a multi-year agreement that makes Colchester School District an even better school district than it already is for students, teachers, support staff, administrators, and the community as a whole.

“The next task was to firmly establish ground rules that would align with the goals, and this is where it gets a bit sticky. Ground rules are essential to negotiations, creating a set of terms to which each party must conform in order to best facilitate the process. With little doubt, the most challenging ground rule was how to allow public viewing of a board meeting regarding a very sensitive and often emotionally charged topic. In such a scenario, one’s expressed position on an issue is apparent to all in attendance and is therefore subject to varying opinions—both positive and negative.

“So far, both parties have met twice, and most of the meeting time was conducted in open session. This is unprecedented in Colchester, Vermont, and in most districts across the country. What is even more interesting is that both parties are committed to the practice; both parties want to share their story with you, their community.

“The meetings will undoubtedly move to executive session for some items, such as compensation. To keep the Colchester community informed, I will provide prior notice of the meeting agendas and whether we can expect the parties to move to executive session. Parenthetically, one of the established ground rules is that each party must provide a majority of agreement in order to motion for an executive session.

“I encourage our community members to engage in this historic and transformative process; meeting agendas are always available on”

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