Collective Bargaining in East Tennessee

Teachers take a break before a protest rally at the Tennessee state capitol building. Photo by Christine Jessel.

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — In Tennessee’s Collective Bargaining War, it was State Representative Debra Maggart who fired the proverbial first shot. Speaking in a House Education Committee meeting, Maggart told fellow legislators, “The unions had a great run.”

Maggart is the Sumner County Republican who filed the House version of a bill that would prohibit teachers from using “collective bargaining” to settle their contracts with school districts.  Collective bargaining is what happens when representatives of two groups– typically management and labor — sit down to work out terms of employment. The end result is a contract. In some situations, it’s a beautiful friendship.  In others, it’s a nightmare. Lloyd Rinehart teaches contract negotiation at the University of Tennessee.

“We may have a particularly good relationship between two individuals that makes the outcome more a problem-solving outcome or we may have two individuals that are not on the same page therefore the situation is more confrontational and antagonistic,” he says.

It’s the antagonistic relationships that legislators like Maggart say they’re working to end.  She and supporters of her bill say the needs of students get lost in the collective bargaining process.  And they claim getting rid of collective bargaining would help schools achieve better results.  But is it that simple?  We thought we’d hit the road to find out.

Our first stop is Maryville, Tennessee. Maryville City Schools has consistently high student test scores and student A.C.T. scores are among the best in the state.   It’s also one of 44 districts that doesn’t collectively bargain.  Teachers and administrators work together through a group called the Maryville Education Association. The M-E-A’s President Tom Stinnett says they don’t have a contract.

“At the drop of a gavel, any agreement we have with the school board, city school board that is, it could be changed within a second,” he says.

Former teacher and Maryville School Superintendent Stephanie Thompson says even without a contract, teachers trust that she’ll get the job done, and she trusts city council to help.

“When we have really shown that we needed additional funds, additional increases in taxes and those types of things that have to happen in order to fund education, they’ve always been supportive of us,” Thompson says.

Thompson and Stinnett say the partnership works for a couple of reasons. One, the school’s budget comes from a higher tax base of city residents. Two, the schools and the city have a common goal. Maryville Education Association President Tom Stinnet says it’s ”to keep the best school system.” To do that, Stinnett says the system sets benchmarks based on the schools around them, saying, “The reason  we feel we have the best teachers is cause we pay more and our benefits are better.  We can cherry-pick other systems.”

Four miles down the road in Alcoa, students’ A.C.T. scores are also above the state average. Alcoa’s teachers don’t bargain, either. Director Tom Shamblin was a teacher in Alcoa City Schools for 23 years.

“Having been a teacher, I do know where they’re coming from,” Shamblin says.  ”Having been in the position of director of schools, I understand the big picture better, and I hope there’s a level of trust between the teachers and myself when I tell them I’ve talked to the city, here’s the situation, there’s money for this but not for this.”

Shamblin likes to be sure teachers understand the budget. He’s even brought in city council members for workshops.  And if teachers want to talk, Shamblin says his door is always open.

“Any given week I may have half a dozen teachers who have shown up in my office, not to complain, but just to say, here’s a thought, what do you think,” he says.

Alcoa and Maryville are both in Blount County. But neither are part of the Blount County School System. Blount County schools’ academic performance is on par with the state’s average school performance, and the system has ambitious goals to raise the bar over the next five years. The schools are spread out all over the county.  And that makes it a little harder to form the personal relationships that you see in Alcoa and Maryville.  Still, Blount County Education Association President Lynn Eubanks says teachers and administrators work well together. They use interest-based bargaining, a type of collective bargaining in which both sides articulate concerns and suggest solutions before agreeing on the final contract.

Eubanks says, “What I really like about this is that when you do the problem-solving and you come up with a joint solution, then the teachers have ownership of the solution.”

In one county, over a 17-minute drive, we’ve seen three very different school systems—and three different ways of working with teachers. Lynn Eubanks says you can’t really compare them, because each district sets its own priorities.

“The solutions that would work in Blount County may not work in Maryville or in Nashville or in Knoxville. But they will work and we can agree on them in Blount County,” she says.

U-T’s Lloyd Rinehart says that’s not surprising. He says how well talks go depend on factors like culture, competition, politics, the economy … even the personalities at the table.

“People do not bargain the same. We’re all individuals, so our approaches may be different.”

For Maryville teacher Tom Stinnett, it all comes down to one thing: “It’s getting along with each other,” he says. “And doing what’s best for the student and the teachers.”

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