Helena Embraces Problem-Solving Approach to Attract the Best Teachers

Helena Embraces Problem-Solving Approach to Attract the Best Teachers

Bruce Messinger, Superintendent, Helena Public Schools; Tammy Pilcher, President, Helena Education Association; Michael O’Neil, Board Chair, Helena Public Schools; Larry Nielson, Field Consultant, MEA-MFT.

To meet the needs of their 8,145 rural students, Helena Public Schools and the Helena Education Association adopted a 2009-10 Master Agreement focused on a problem-solving approach called “consensus negotiations.” Included in the agreement is a plan that includes shared decision-making to foster trust and respect among stakeholders and to attract the best teachers.

Superintendent Bruce Messinger described their work as uniquely collaborative. “If we had to do one thing in our presentation,” said Messinger at the Labor Management Collaboration Conference, “we would talk about the consensus process.”

To attract and reward exceptional teaching, the district and Helena Education Association created an innovative compensation plan that was attainable, affordable, and accountable. Called the Professional Compensation Alternative Plan (PCAP), the agreement provides opportunities and rewards for professional growth and offers a career ladder with 25 steps. The top step’s salary is almost $10,000 higher than that of the traditional scale. Board of Education Trustee Don Jones, explained, “Having the best teachers that you can possibly get in your district is the number one consideration. It’s that person in front of our kids and you want (him or her) to be one of the best. It’s the best thing we can do for our students. Generally to get the best, you need to be willing to pay for the best.”

Moving up the PCAP scale requires completion of an approved career development plan and successful supervisory evaluations, rather than a specified number of years of service. The school board and district leaders also partner with teachers through establishment of a fund to pay for professional development, including sabbatical leaves, tuition and fee reimbursements, and other professional growth opportunities.

Helena also provides support for new teachers by placing them with experienced, master mentors and giving them time to observe each other or other master teachers. Tenured teachers can choose to be a part of the “Professional Growth Strand,” the purpose of which is to promote professional growth, to involve teachers and administrators in cooperative discussions and planning, and to encourage working together for the accomplishment of school goals. Time and resources are provided for peer collaboration, observation, and data collection. Supervisors serve as coaches and facilitators.

Helena schools also recognize that effective principals recruit and support the best teachers. As a result, the district is piloting the Vanderbilt Assessment for Leadership in Education VAL-ED), evaluating administrators based on the learning-centered leadership research literature that aligns to the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards.

How was Helena able to accomplish so much? In their breakout session, Superintendent Messinger explained the revelation that came to labor, management and the board after focusing on the best outcomes. “Once we took away the fear that everyone was trying to take advantage of each other—that the reality is when we all got in the circle together and said we all really want to accomplish the same thing—we quit spending so much time pushing back against each other and put our energy pushing forward together.”