In 1999, the Assistant Superintendent for Personnel in the Webster Central School District (WCSD) and the President of the Webster Teachers’ Association (WTA) asked Ki ThoughtBridge to help their organizations prepare for contract negotiations. The previous agreement had taken over two years to negotiate, and they wanted to overcome challenges posed by historically antagonistic relations. This Assistant Superintendent had worked with Ki ThoughtBridge in a neighboring district, and believed, along with the WTA President, that an interest-based bargaining approach, with its focus on relationships and communication, could change the dynamic.
The District’s impasse was rooted in the working relationships between the District and the Union. Among other issues, three superintendents in the previous 10 years had all left under less than ideal circumstances, including one with a positive working relationship with the WTA. Relationships between teachers and administrators were strained due to contract disputes over a 25-year period. Like other districts, Webster faced legislative and community challenges; current changes in the District included building a new school, remodeling and reopening others, and personnel changes on the board, in the administration, and in the WTA.
Before calling Ki ThoughtBridge, the Assistant Superintendent and the WTA President spent nearly a year cultivating their relationship. In committing to the interest-based process, they agreed to change the dynamic not only for contract negotiations but also in all working relationships between the WCSD and the WTA. They recognized their long-term goals could not be achieved effectively if they did not; they sought to learn from the past to create a collaborative future.
In the fall of 1999 Ki ThoughtBridge was asked to present the Interest Based Negotiation Framework to key leaders in the District, including the negotiating teams. A series of joint facilitation and training sessions were conducted for the WCSD and the WTA. These began with a 2-day workshop for almost 70 people focused on the consensus building and Interest-based Framework. In this time district and union members addressed relationship issues including the lack of trust in relationships, the lack of teamwork and respect in schools, and participants’ feelings of being under attack from the “other side.” Also, the workshop allowed school board members, teachers, union officials, and administrators to begin to use the Framework to build working relationships based on communication, trust and mutual respect.
In a third session Ki ThoughtBridge facilitated a joint launch for the contract negotiations that included both the negotiating teams and the School Board. In this session we introduced the One-Text Process for building consensus on a contract, and together the parties outlined key issues to tackle in the negotiations. Within the session participants focused on how the teams would communicate the process and progress of the 5-day negotiating session to follow to as many constituents as possible.
Ki ThoughtBridge facilitated the negotiating session, an intensive 5-day effort that changed the tone of contract negotiations and capitalized on the work of the previous workshops. Mid-way through the effort the negotiating teams brought in the School Board and the Executive Board of the Union to confirm their progress. This communication effort became a relationship-building opportunity and a time for caucusing, and paved the way for the eventual approval of the contract.
At the end of 5 days, the WCSD and the WTA negotiating teams finalized a contract that was subsequently approved by the WTA and the School Board. The teams reached agreement on all significant points in record time. A lasting effect of this contract has been to make District employees less contract-bound; whereas in the past they did not have the flexibility to make adjustments mid-contract, the new contract loosened the reins.
Negotiating team members described their experience:
“I can say unequivocally that I am a 100% convert to the Ki ThoughtBridge process. I have never seen anything like it in terms of logic, practicality, and success! I am so glad we have begun this process in Webster, and even more appreciative of all of your efforts, both in our workshops and especially in our negotiations.” – WTA Treasurer and Negotiating Team Member
“You and your organization are amazing. Largely because of the process and your personal efforts, we covered ground that needed to be explored. While there was a genuine interest on both sides to reach an agreement, it was clear from the discussion and its facilitation, deeper issues needed to be addressed. Like a mid-stream course correction, this negotiation session helped assure that not only were we on track but most importantly we would not be working at cross purposes.” – WCSD Superintendent
Due to their success, the WTA and the WCSD decided to use the interest-based process to address all problems and challenges, not just contract negotiations. The District has undertaken a concerted effort to “cascade” the Interest-based Framework throughout all areas. In the summer of 2000 Ki ThoughtBridge facilitated two training sessions to advance that effort:
- For the Transportation Department, we focused on building consensus and practicing joint problem-solving to help the department resolve several specific issues of contention; and
- For the Professional Practices Committee, responsible for assisting teachers in their growth and skill development and assuring regulatory criteria for materials presented to students, we focused on building internal team alignment so the group could work effectively together and efficiently external stakeholders.
In 2001, Ki ThoughtBridge continued cascading the Interest-based Framework training through the District with others groups. These efforts included:
- Facilitation of contract negotiations between the WCSD and the administrators’ union, the Webster Educational Leadership Association (WELA), completed in three days in May 2001; and
- Leading a workshop to share interest-based collaboration and negotiation skills for 60 members of the Central Administration, the WTA and the WELA in July 2001.
In 2003 Ki ThoughtBridge was invited to facilitate a joint launch for the new contract negotiations between the District and the WTA. Amidst critical budget pressures due to New York State’s fiscal crisis, the teams assembled to develop a road map and engage in the first steps of the negotiations. In two 2-day facilitated sessions, the teams established the parameters for their contract negotiations, and a road map for the talks themselves. With this momentum underway, they continued to self-facilitate their negotiations, currently nearing completion.