Akron parents and children had reason to enter 1996 with a sense of fear.
Teachers and administrators had begun contract bargaining and the talks were full of strife, delays and hard feelings. The teachers’ strike of 1989 and the animosity it brought were still in everyone’s memory.
William Siegferth, then president of the Akron Education Association, called the time between the strike and the 1996 negotiations “the most contentious period in my tenure.”
Brian Williams, who as Akron Public Schools superintendent had been sitting across the table from Siegferth, said: “We were about as low as you could go as far as relationships and common interests and goals, objectives, everything else that you try to live by as an institution.”
Mediator Rob Stein was called in to help with the talks and he saw the problem immediately.
“When you have experienced that kind of history, the trust issue is major. There’s a lack of trust.”
And the problem wasn’t just at the bargaining table.
Sitting at home wondering what they would do with their kids in the event of another strike were thousands of parents who also served as taxpayers and voters.
Siegferth was afraid those talks would go as they did in 1994 when a deal wasn’t reached until just hours before the start of a new school year. Picket lines already had formed outside the schools when the deal was announced.
“It’s unsettling for parents if school starts in a week and the teachers are talking about possible striking and management is saying no way in hell we are going to have an agreement with them,” Siegferth said. “To this day, I’m not sure who initiated this effort.”
A civic group called Akron Tomorrow played a role, agreeing to pay for Stein to come in and be a mediator and fact-finder.
Siegferth and Williams credit Stein with focusing on a simple path toward success: “How does this benefit the children of the Akron public school system?”
It was a simple idea that helped them solve complicated problems, especially showing the difference between self-interest and good of the whole.
With that overriding principle, Siegferth said Stein established a process that allowed step-by-step progress.
Williams called Stein “a mediator, a peacemaker, somebody who could come in and understand the personalities of the two parties, come to understand the issues of the two parties, come to understand the history of the two parties. …He became a seer and knower of all facts.”
Stein called it interest-based bargaining and it started with each side imagining how the other group would respond. Instead of “proposals” written in legalese, Stein insisted on what he called “supposals” that implied flexibility.
It came in the form of a fill-in-the-blank template that ended with a requirement to show how any idea would help or hurt kids.
“His process made both sides funnel down to one point and that one point is ‘how is that helping our school district and our kids,’ ” Siegferth said.
Williams called it K.I.S.S. — Keep It Simple, Stupid.
“It makes sense to not be confusing everybody with language that nobody understands,” he said.
“I try to get them to thinking why they take a particular stand on something,” Stein said.
Stein, who often calls his job a “neutral” instead of mediator, said personality and a human touch make a difference.
He used humor as a tool to disarm hard feelings. He made an effort to have the negotiators like him personally as a way of building trust. He worked hard to gain their respect, even wear them down when they maintained divergent positions.
Knowing that some administrators and teachers had been athletes, he talked about sports during breaks and it was helpful in building relationships.
“It’s amazing that somehow people are in a better state of mind to deal with the differences of opinion because they have a relationship at different levels and on different subject matter and they trust one another,” Stein said.
One sports metaphor he avoided was the concept of winning at all costs.
“I discourage anybody from thinking in terms of winning and losing,” he said. “You have to look at the long view of this. What are we trying to achieve?”
Williams, who is retired, agreed that the human touch is important.
“It builds commitment to that person,” he said. “No. 1, because we are all human beings and the more you can get along with them the more chance you have for success.”
Williams was in his second year as superintendent, but he knew Siegferth from when both were elementary school teachers. He even knew his family.
“All of those things help. They build trust and knowledge,” Williams said. “Bill Siegferth can’t bullshit me like he can other people.”
Siegferth, who also is retired now, became sold on interest-based bargaining with the human touch.
“Once I became comfortable with that, that’s a great way to approach things,” he said.
Stein continues as a mediator, but no longer is involved with Akron schools. He put his principle simply:
“It’s all about relationships.”
The contract was finished in May 1996, months earlier than any recent contract.
A Beacon Journal editorial called it: “a singular feat of cooperation that shows how far the district has come in mending labor relations.”
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.