Reaching mutual agreement is always the goal, and reaching an agreement comes from clearly understanding the financial condition of the district.
Tom Livezy explains how to bring facts into negotiation discussions.
“After months, if not years, of negotiation, dialogue typically becomes unproductive, emotional, and you reach an impasse,” says Tom Livezey, Superintendent of Oakridge Public Schools in Michigan. “You’re typically deliberating over the district’s financial ability to pay the wage and benefits proposals.”
At that point, a state–appointed mediator attempts to facilitate an agreement between the board and the union. If mediation is unsuccessful, a state-appointed fact-finder reviews evidence from both sides and provides a non-binding recommendation.
During these stages, he uses Eidex.
“Eidex provides clear and reliable information that is critical to having productive conversations about a district’s financial condition,” Livezey says. “Fact finders are not educators. They know the law but they may not be familiar with public school finance. Painting a financially accurate and reliable picture of the District’s financial condition, which any lay person can understand, is essential to reaching mutually agreeable terms.
“But” he adds, “it can take many hours of effort to prepare the exhibits for a fact finder. Eidex helps me to gather timely information critical to reaching common understanding and agreement. Essentially, it allows me to quickly prepare a School Finance 101 session on the district’s financial condition, which allows for quality dialogue sooner in the process.”
Livezey’s approach includes the following steps:
Compare Fund Balances
First, he turns to Eidex to identify peer groups with similar enrollment, similar poverty levels, and similar per pupil foundation allowances. He compares both peer group expenditures and expenditures within his county.
“We look at the financial condition of every district in the county and of peer group districts across the state,” Livezey says. “We compare audited fund balances, the revenues other districts have, and how they are spending their money for each function in the district. Then we explore and discuss variances.”
Examine and compare employee wages
Next, he uses multiple sources to explore employee wages. Eidex is his first source, using the software to explore salaries and benefits, and comparing them across peer groups. After that, he turns to Schedule A data (wage scales in contracts), manually gathering it from school website transparency reports, and comparing each district’s contract structures.
“Teacher salaries are not where you initially try to cut expenses,” he emphasizes, “good teachers deserve competitive pay. That’s your primary investment to improve student learning. But, the teachers — and the administrators — need to understand the full context of the district’s financial condition.”
Explore Function Code areas
Lastly, Livezey takes a detailed look at his district’s expenditures, and compares them to peer groups. For that detailed analysis, he again relies on Eidex.
“In negotiations, particular expenditures are scrutinized closely, like administrative costs. It’s really important to be able to provide an accurate analysis and context on how the district is spending public money. Recently, I have been able to show that our administrative costs were kept low for our peer group and our teaching wages were rather competitive. The whole point is to provide accurate information so that people clearly understand the financial situation and quality discussion can take place at the bargaining table.”
Finding a New Strategy
Livezey’s new strategy, though, is to avoid fact finding completely.
“If you head to fact finding,” he explains, “it means you’ve failed to reach a common understanding. Plus it’s expensive once the attorneys get involved. The ideal approach is to shift the discussions earlier into the bargaining process. It saves money, time, and effort if you can have these numbers at the bargaining table.”
He stresses that accurate information makes for calmer discussions.
“It makes the whole process less antagonistic early on. When you can look at audited figures, it’s helpful,” he says. “If you aren’t transparent, you lose public trust. Most districts and most teachers want what’s best for kids, and they want to be paid fairly, too. But, if you want a 5% wage increase that will put the district into deficit, that is a conversation I can’t have. Reaching mutual agreement is always the goal, and reaching an agreement comes from clearly understanding the financial condition of the district.”
Livezey concludes by saying, “Unions typically argue that districts are hiding money or ‘padding’ the budget. Transparency helps build trust. I can more confidently stand behind financial decisions because I know where we are spending our money in comparison to peer groups. Prioritizing investment in the classroom for kids is the goal and Eidex helps me pursue that goal.”