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September 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 1

Shared Decision Making Works!

Making the move to collegial decision making hasn't always been a smooth process, says the superintendent of a small district in northern California, but the positive results have reinforced the commitment of his staff.

I've spent many sleepless nights worrying whether the difficulties facing our district's restructuring efforts have been worth the energy needed to move forward. As morning comes, I always reach the same conclusion: yes.
For five years I was head negotiator for the teachers' association in Moraga, California, a small suburban district east of San Francisco. In spite of my public support for our successes through collective bargaining, I always felt personally uncomfortable with its confrontational nature. Often on the same day, I would have to switch from collegial conversations with a teacher, administrator, or parent, to uncompromising confrontations about salary increases with the same people.
As a principal, I often felt a similar conflict. I worked hard to develop trust between myself and the staff. Yet the mutual respect that grew out of overcoming problems and developing new programs together would often be tossed aside as teacher and district positions hardened at the bargaining table. I found myself voicing positions that were not necessarily my own feelings, but seemed necessary to protect the district's bargaining strategy. At times the conflicts over salary issues so dominated the school year that efforts to improve the educational program became secondary at best.
I became convinced that there had to be a better way to resolve conflicts. Though the road is difficult, the Reed Union School District is finding a better way.

Starting at the District Level

Two years ago I became superintendent of the district after three years as principal of the middle school. A major factor in my decision to apply for the position was my confidence in the district's three-year budget restructuring project. I was continually amazed by the positive impact shared decision making had on our district. For two-and-a-half years, beginning while I was still at the middle school, for example, we had no damaging conflict over salary increases.
In Reed, we began our restructuring effort at the district level. Many districts that experiment with involving teachers in leadership start at the school site level. We began with the topic everyone considered the biggest obstacle to educational improvement: conflict over the district budget.
With help from the Stuart Foundations, we launched our Management Team: seven teacher representatives, one classified representative, the district's three principals, the superintendent, and two board members. This group meets regularly—and in public—to develop a recommendation on the district's annual budget. While the Board of Trustees is not legally obligated to accept the team's recommendation, it has done so for the past three years. The proposal has also been the basis for the formal salary settlements between the district and bargaining units.

Forming a Team Agreement

Getting started wasn't easy. Several years ago, as part of a countywide professional development project, the Reed Board of Trustees made an initial commitment to developing teacher involvement in decision making. Once the Management Team was in place, we hired a trainer to help us analyze our personal styles and develop effective group dynamics. Out of the training process came our Team Agreements: to commit to operate by consensus, respect one another's styles, speak honestly, and advocate the team's decisions to our constituencies. Taking the time to work out these agreements was critical for success.
In the meetings, when a member objects to a particular proposal, everyone listens carefully to his or her reasoning because we cannot reach consensus without everyone's approval. Similarly, when team members raise objections, they also offer suggestions because everyone has the same ultimate goal: consensus. As one member stated in our second-year evaluation, “If this were a collective bargaining session, it would have ended in the first few minutes, because everybody would have stormed out. Everyone here feels responsible for coming up with the product, instead of exhibiting the attitude that 'it's not my problem—it's yours!'”

Developing a Recommendation

Beginning with the Team Agreements, we held monthly three- to four-hour meetings to develop a budget recommendation. Though the process was tedious, we went through the budget line by line. The business manager clearly explained state budgeting procedures and regulations, and everyone's questions were answered. As Management Team members gained an understanding of what makes a district budget, we focused on priorities for the upcoming year.
We spent many hours ranking priorities for adjustments to the budget. A typical meeting focused on such questions as: With only a small cost of living increase from the state, what priority do we give to programs, classroom aides, class size, and staff salary increases? The discussion was intense, often heated. Sometimes members broke into smaller groups to try to reach accord. At times, we doubted we could reach consensus, but everyone persevered, and eventually we drafted a plan that preserved core programs, instructional aides, and small class size. Some specialist positions were dropped and instructional supply allocations reduced. Increased costs, including teacher and staff salary increases, were included in the final budget recommendation. Though no one enjoys deciding whether a half-time elementary physical education teacher or a groundskeeper deserves a higher priority, members knew they must make some hard choices—and that they could make them—because we all share the same fundamental value: quality education for our students.
In June 1991, we completed our third round of budget development. As we have become clearer about our priorities, we have also generated new questions. How should the budget reflect the differences among our schools? Do differing student needs require different student to teacher ratios? Or is equity among schools a better criterion? In the future, we feel able to address these difficult questions because of the creativity inherent in our Management Team process.

A Model That Can Work Anywhere

Working in a restructured system has been demanding at times. As emotions become heightened, it's a struggle to maintain a constructive attitude. Adapting to changes in the roles of board members, administrators, and teacher-negotiators has also been a challenge. One of our most persistent problems is finding the time necessary for frequent Management Team meetings. Clarifying the team's role in the district's chain of command remains a thorny issue, as does defining the relationship between legally required collective bargaining and Management Team recommendations.
However, dealing with these challenges is unconditionally preferable to the system I have been used to. After having an adversarial environment for many years, the district now has open communication and an atmosphere of developing trust. Teachers and principals can focus their attention on improvements in curriculum and school programs. Community support has grown, too. Three years ago, district voters turned down a special local tax assessment for schools. In April 1990, they approved a similar measure by a two-thirds —.
Recently, the budget situation throughout California has created our greatest challenge yet. The lack of cost-of-living increases in state revenue to local districts means that budgeting for even minimal salary increases is increasingly difficult. District staff began to question whether teacher interests are best served through traditional, adversarial bargaining or through a more collaborative process. It is a mark of commitment to shared decision making that the district and the teachers' association have agreed to broaden the scope of our Management Team to include all contract negotiations.
While the small size of Reed may partially account for our success, our diversity in individual points of view is typical of all school districts. I believe that making a mutual commitment to work by consensus and to base decisions on the best interest of kids is a model that can work anywhere.

Shared Decision Making: Suggestions for School Districts

Involve board members from the beginning. Their participation is essential to legitimize the process and to ease communication.

Take the time to build trust. Group training sessions to develop team agreements are an invaluable way to begin shared decision making.

Use neutral facilitators. Facilitators keep the consensus process intact, remind the group when it is straying from its agreements, and focus the group on its tasks.

Be honest. There is no room for unspoken agendas or behind-the-scene manipulations. Individual members' priorities or concerns need to be stated and time taken to deal with them as they arise.

Be patient. Reaching a group consensus takes more time and patience than making decisions in a traditional hierarchial system, but recommendations will be accepted with a remarkable spirit of trust.


Robert Kessler has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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