Many people have been following the negotiations between the Rochester City School District, its unions, and the University of Rochester concerning the plan to turn around East High School. And you can be sure that some were betting that the negotiations would break down.
But that didn't happen. After several weeks of rushed and sometimes tense negotiations, the UR and the city school board agreed on a plan earlier this week that turns management of East over to the UR. If the plan is approved, and from most indications it will be, the UR will be responsible for guiding the academic rejuvenation of the city’s largest high school.
Much of the tension was driven by an extremely tight deadline and an understandably cautious UR. School board President Van White aggressively pursued the UR’s involvement and was rebuffed twice. And he wasn't the only school official courting the UR for help.
Negotiations came to the brink of falling apart on several occasions, and changes were being made to the plan right up until the last minute. White says that everyone made serious concessions to arrive at an agreement. And some of the biggest concessions are evident in the memorandum between the UR and the Rochester Teachers Association.
According to the agreement signed by UR President Joel Seligman and RTA President Adam Urbanski, all of East's teachers will have to apply for the jobs available, including those currently employed at East. A committee consisting of parents, administrators, and teachers will interview the candidates, although teachers will only make up one-third of the interviewing committee.
And no less than 51 percent of the teachers selected for the 2015-2016 school year must come from the committee’s recommendations.
Even more striking is that only a clear majority of teachers will need to approve the UR’s turnaround plan for the new East High School instead of the usual 80 percent.
The UR wanted these changes to give it sure footing in its new management role. White says that it isn't the substance of the changes that made the negotiations difficult. The real challenge was trying to hammer out an agreement between parties with no history of working together, he says.
“Trust is built on relationships,” White says. “But there were almost no pre-existing relationships here. And that meant that a couple of words in one sentence [in the agreement] could hold things up.”
The agreement does not impact how teachers are evaluated or due process in the case of disciplinary actions. But White says the terms show a willingness on the part of both Urbanski and Seligman to find common ground.
The agreement also shows that the planning process for the new school, which will open in the fall of 2015-2016, does come with substantial expense. But the district and the UR are sharing the costs — something the UR said it didn't want to do in earlier discussions.
As anyone who has dealt with contracts knows, they’re only as good as the people behind them. Seligman commented earlier this week that reaching this step was the end of the beginning phase to turn around East. And he’s right; there will be plenty of opportunities ahead for people to disagree, and the people who came up with the agreement and submitted the plan to the SED will not be the ones doing the ground work in the classrooms.
But as White has said repeatedly, there’s no way to bow out gracefully now. Everybody has to be “all in” at East – teachers, parents, students, and administrators – or they shouldn’t be there.