Uproar in Ogden: middleman frets about losing its clout


Much ado has been made by several groups (e.g., here and here) opposed to the Ogden School District’s (OSD) decision to move to a performance-based pay system for teachers.

Photo credit: Joe Rowley

A key part of their objections is a perceived lack of teacher involvement in the decision of the district to move towards a performance-based pay system.

First, a little clarification. When the opponents to the OSD plan say “teachers,” what they really mean is the “union” (aka the teachers association). To these groups, the union is the teachers and vice versa, though, in reality, many individual teachers have different interests and different views than the union as an organization.

For instance, despite the fact that the Ogden teachers union counseled its nearly 500 members (out of roughly 550 classroom teachers in OSD) to wait to sign the upcoming year’s teaching contracts so it could consider legal options for fighting the district’s decision, within two days after the contracts were sent out nearly 20 percent of OSD teachers had signed their contracts. Clearly, many rank-and-file teachers in Ogden do not share the union’s concern about the school district’s decision.

In any case, since the opponents of the OSD decision equate the union with “teachers,” what their opposition really boils down to is that the union was not involved in the decision to move toward a performance-based pay system for teachers. And on its face, this is true. The district circumvented the union by deciding to move toward a performance-based pay system for teachers and by sending this year’s teaching contracts directly to the teachers themselves, rather than going through the union.

Of course, the district had to take actions like this because the process of going through the union to produce a teaching contract (collective bargaining) had failed to produce a contract for several years running. No one, not even the union, disputes this fact – although the union prefers descriptors like “negotiations have stalled” and “reached an impasse” over the term “failed.”

In other words, while the union is complaining that it did not have a seat at the table in the current contract, a big reason for this is that its presence at the table resulted in no contract being produced! The union would have everyone believe that the blame rests solely on the school district and its “bad faith” tactics (a classic political ploy). But as the only other participant in the negotiations, the union is partly responsible for the outcome. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.

The fact of the matter is that the current contract, by sidestepping the union, is actually likely to increase the involvement of rank-and-file teachers in the process. According to OSD Superintendent Noel Zabriskie, one of the reasons for not implementing the performance-pay plan immediately is to get input and feedback from teachers as they move forward to create the plan. Further, by working with teachers directly rather than only through the union, the school district will be able to get teacher input firsthand, rather than filtered by the union middle man who has an interest in making sure that the performance-pay system does not lessen the union’s influence.

And that strikes at the heart of the union’s objection to the OSD decision. As a middleman, the union gains power and influence when the district goes through it to communicate and negotiate with teachers. The union’s real worry is that it will lose this power and influence, which explains the recent comments from representatives of teachers unions across Utah stating their worry about the “precedent” the OSD decision sets. Similarly, this explains a conspiracy-theory-like comment from the head of the state teachers union, describing the OSD decision as part of “an attempt to dismantle the [teachers] association.”

For the middleman in public education, it is first and foremost about power.