CONTRACT TALKS between the Prince George's County school board and teachers union are hung up on a clause about binding arbitration for teacher grievances, such as allegedly unfair disciplinary actions. Both sides are making textbook mistakes in negotiating: failing to appreciate fully the adversary's problems, and focusing on a symbolic bargaining stance rather than on practical consequences.
The union will trade cost-of-living adjustments for binding arbitration. The school board, however, believes that binding arbitration means abdication of its policy and management role, since an arbitrator's decision might contravene board policy. Under the current contract, the superintendent or board can set aside the arbitrator's decision if they feel it is contrary to established policy or regulations. Hardly "binding," says the union, which then must persuade a court to reinstate the arbitrator's decision. The delay and expense erode somewhat the contract's goal of preventing arbitrary actions by management. On the other hand, if unable to overrule the arbitrator, the board itself would have the burden of going to court to contest an arbitration. The delay and expense would erode somewhat the board's ability to operate efficiently under its own policies. Both sides agree that arbitrators shouldn't make policy; they disagree on what to do when one may have mistakenly done so.
Yes, the arbitrator's discretion should be chaneled, but the board should not have an open-ended escape clause. While the union is willing to work on compromise language, the board is reciting a civics lesson about its elected responsibilities. Well, one of its responsibilities is to negotiate a contract rather than posture. The escape clause should be tightened, "policy" should be defined, the practical availability of quick judicial relief through restraining orders and injunctions should be kept in mind. There is room for maneuvering, if the parties will only try.