William E. Siegferth

I was honored to serve Akron teachers as their union president and chief negotiator for 27 years from 1983 through my retirement in May 2010. I am equally honored to represent teachers now in a lesser capacity, including serving on their negotiating team.

During my tenure, I led a team of teacher negotiators in bargaining no fewer than a dozen contracts with the school board. There were bad times, the worst of which was in 1989 when teachers were forced to strike. There were also rewarding times, the best among them being 1996 when negotiations began in late March and concluded peacefully by the end of April. That year is significant in the history of bargaining between the Akron Public Schools and the Akron Education Association. It marked the first in a string of 16 years in which a mediator attended every bargaining session in every round of contract talks between the AEA and the school board.

Former Superintendent Brian Williams is credited with suggesting the full-time presence of a mediator to help keep negotiators on task and to bring about the earliest possible settlement. Williams even managed to convince Akron Tomorrow, a group of local business leaders, to pay for the mediator’s services. Like the Akron community in general, Akron Tomorrow had grown weary of the contentious negotiations between the AEA and the board that had become commonplace.

The AEA and the board mutually selected Rob Stein to facilitate talks. Stein’s greatest strength was his ability to hold both sides accountable for their proposals, demanding of each that they explain how their respective proposals benefited the district and, most important, the students. He brought interest-based bargaining to the table, replacing the traditions positional bargaining that had previously led to so many declarations of impasse.

Stein’s success in bringing civility to the negotiations process can best be measured by the record. During his 16 years overseeing contract talks, settlements were reached without exception before the start of the new school year. Not once during his time did the parties reach an impasse. Stein’s expertise in guiding negotiations was praised not just by the parties, but by community leaders as well. On more than one occasion, he was recognized in Beacon Journal editorials for, in one 1996 piece, helping to create a “standard of labor negotiations that will serve the schools and city well.”

An important spin-off of Stein’s involvement in negotiations was the spread of a cooperative relationship between the parties from the bargaining table to everyday matters. This cooperation is best evidenced by the fact that during the 16-year period, not one grievance went to arbitration. If a grievance was not settled internally, Stein mediated a resolution acceptable to both sides.

Near the end of contract talks in 2010, board negotiators abruptly and permanently dismissed Rob Stein. They and other school officials claimed that Stein had become “too union friendly.” But when challenged to cite examples in support of the claims, they can produce none. One can easily enough analyze settlements during Stein’s term as facilitator and conclude that there is no evidence of his showing favoritism to either side.

We are not surprised that this year’s talks ended in impasse. Board negotiators proposed one wage settlement that we believe is unreasonable, if not irresponsible. They declined to discuss any wage or fringe benefit alternatives, claiming they had no authority to do so because of the “parameters” set by the Board of Education.

At the same time, they declined to engage in any substantive discussion of the AEA’s non-cost proposals, many of which we believe would contribute to safer schools, improved environments and enhanced student learning. Essentially, their strategy was to not discuss anything until we capitulated to their wage demands. This strategy would have been disallowed by Stein or, for that matter, by any other mediator.

We are left with a return to the old positional bargaining and the same results that type of negotiating generally yields — an impasse. We have lost the expertise of Rob Stein and the vast knowledge of the district he accumulated during his 16 years of guiding the negotiations process. Instead of reaching a compromise settlement on our own, we will submit our “positions” to a fact-finder who, regardless of his or her level of expertise, will not have the same historical perspective of the district and labor relations that Stein possessed.

We urge the public not to use this unfortunate turn of events as a reason to oppose the school levy. The AEA fully endorses the levy and recognizes the urgency to pass it and the consequences of its failure. Failure most certainly will lead to the loss of jobs for more of our members. No one can reasonably argue that the further loss of teaching positions will not make even more difficult our responsibility to grow student achievement in our district. We ask the public to trust our judgment at the table. We believe our willingness in recent years to make concessions in health care and to accept wage freezes earns that trust.

Siegferth is the immediate past president of the Akron Education Association.