Plattsburgh is located on Lake Champlain in northern New York State, 25 miles from the Canadian border. From this small town, a remarkable story of union-administration collaboration over three-and-a-half decades has emerged. In the last two years, teams from Plattsburgh have presented at AFT QuEST, the Labor and Employment Relations Association, and the National Conference on Collaborative School Reform. In October 2010, Plattsburgh was profiled in a major Rutgers University study entitled "Collaborating on School Reform," by Saul Rubinstein and John McCarthy.
Collaboration in Plattsburgh was precipitated by a three-day strike in 1975. Afterwards, the opposing sides discovered a mutual interest in harnessing their efforts to promote student learning. According to Superintendent James Short, this smalltown approach came from the "natural sense of the people who live here." Combativeness was "not our way."
Stability in the leadership of both union and district has nourished Plattsburgh's collaborative approach. Rod Sherman has been union president since 1973. During this period there have been just four superintendents (one of whom was promoted from within the district). Sherman attributes this stability, in part, to the union's participation in municipal elections; the union supports school board candidates predisposed towards collaboration. Currently, eight of the nine board members were elected with union support. The board then selects superintendents who understand collaboration and can bring to the job an ability to nurture Plattsburgh's unique strengths.
The collective bargaining agreement contains considerable language that may be unenforceable in a grievance procedure, but which takes on meaning and substance in the context of the rich relationships between the parties. For example, the vaguely worded phrase "reasonable effort" occurs five times in sections A-D of Article V - Class Load; this would have little value in an adversarial context. Memorandums of agreement are built on mutually satisfactory "resolutions," then rolled into the next contract—a form of continuous bargaining.
The collective bargaining agreement provides for the District-Wide Educational Improvement Council and the School Improvement Plan committee, which provide a mechanism for key stakeholders to have a voice in local policy. While not broad-scope bargaining per se, the effect is similar in bringing practitioners into policy conversations. Early on, Plattsburgh adopted peer assistance and review and value-added methods in teacher evaluation.
Plattsburgh's approach entails considerable risk-taking by both superintendent and union president, as other leaders may consider them "soft" for eschewing an adversarial approach. Ultimately, they solve problems mutually. The bottom line, Short says, is "you can't fake it."
|Data at a glance:|
|Total certified teachers||194|
|Total full-time staff||284|
|Number of schools||5|
|Enrollment, by race/ethnicity|
|Students eligible for free and reduced-price meals||46%|
Tracy Rotz, Vice President, Plattsburgh City School District Board of Education
Roderick Sherman, President, Plattsburgh Teachers' Association
James Short, Superintendent, Plattsburgh City School District