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Tense, Final Hours Of Education Talks Produced Two-Pronged Solution Some View As National Model

Malloy Scheduled To Sign Hard-Fought Legislation Tuesday


May 14, 2012

HARTFORD Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams pulled into the Capitol about noon on Saturday, May 5. It was Kentucky Derby day and Connecticut legislators had a race of their own on their hands. With only five days until the end of the session, Williams had many issues on his mind, but the leviathan education bill topped the list.

Negotiations had been under way for more than a week between legislative leaders and the governor's top staff. Williams had left the Capitol about 4 that morning. Before leaving he had heard that the talks late Friday night had not gone well.

The meeting hadn't started until midnight and was very short. Some feared it was the end of talks.

House Speaker Christopher Donovan had heard the same dismal report. He suggested Saturday morning that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's chief of staff, Mark Ojakian, get more involved.

"Things had broken down," Donovan said later. "I just felt that Mark had some good listening skills, and that could be useful."

Ojakian, who brokered an agreement with the state employees union last summer, had a calm, diplomatic manner that helped keep discussions on track.

By that Saturday, the highest-profile issues teacher evaluations and tenure were close to being agreed upon. What now posed the greatest obstacle were the details of the plan to turn around low-performing schools.

Polarized Climate

Negotiating complex legislation is rarely easy, but the polarized climate over the education bill which the governor is scheduled to sign into law Tuesday made it even more difficult. Malloy wasn't in the room, but his threat to veto any bill that didn't meet his terms loomed over the talks. No less on the negotiators' minds were the leaders of the state teachers unions, who had lashed out in a campaign against many of the reforms Malloy said were vital.

With passions sometimes boiling on all sides, Malloy pointed to the state's largest-in-the-nation achievement gap and framed the issue as "the civil rights issue our time." Teachers had their own plans to close the gap and loudly insisted that Malloy's plan jeopardized their jobs, threatened collective bargaining and promoted too much privatization. Private, nonprofit education reform groups, local and national, kept up the drumbeat of support for Malloy's package.

Ads proliferated in newspapers and on radio and television; legislators were bombarded with robocalls and emails. Williams said he received calls from company CEOs urging him to support education reform though he didn't think they were clear on exactly what they supported.

Legislators revised the bill twice, including several provisions on low-performing schools that were preferable to union leaders but deal-breakers for Malloy.

Amid the bitterness and acrimony over the issue, legislators and state officials also were trying to keep a lid on the substance of their negotiations. They feared that leaks could derail any hope of agreement.

Alternate Routes

The final days of the negotiations began with a large number of people: appropriations committee chairwomen Sen. Toni Harp and Rep. Toni Walker, both Democrats from New Haven; the two education committee leaders, Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, and Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford; Williams and Donovan; education Commissioner Stefan Pryor; Ojakian, and other legislative and administrative staff members. They met in Williams' and Donovan's Capitol offices.

But as time wore on, the group got smaller. Ojakian said the thinking was that a smaller group could work more efficiently.

Legislative leaders had come out with the second version of the reform bill on April 25, and it included some provisions sharply at odds with what Malloy had proposed.

But, Ojakian said, "At least we had a document we could work from."

As the negotiations progressed, the small group met in various rooms at Capitol. When legislators had to dash out to vote, they also had to dodge lobbyists, education advocates, reporters and others who scrutinized them for a clue as to how the negotiations were going.

"It was hard to walk around this building," Ojakian said. "I had to find a different way to go to the men's room."

His ordinary route took him through the hallways where lobbyists and advocates positioned themselves near the House chamber. "It would take me like a half an hour to get through," Ojakian said. "People wanted to know about this. 'Are you close? How are you doing?'"

So Ojakian would slip down a staircase to a first floor men's room or use the governor's private bathroom after hours.

Stillman said members of the Democratic caucus kept asking her, "How's it going? Do you think we have an agreement?"

She tried to fill them in, without revealing specifics. "I would give them as honest an answer as I could, with the understanding of the sensitive nature of the negotiations that you make an agreement not to talk about it publicly."

But in a sign of the challenge of the talks, Stillman later said that even if an agreement hadn't been reached, lawmakers still would have gone forward with a bill.

"I believe a bill would have been supported maybe not as overwhelmingly," Stillman said. "When people know the governor is in agreement, they are a lot more interested in supporting it."

Verge Of Collapse

It wasn't entirely clear that Saturday morning when or if negotiations would resume after Friday night's breakdown.

Rumors circulated that neither side wanted an agreement.

"We didn't know, at that point, whether the endgame would be to push hard for an agreement," Williams said, "or whether folks had given up and we were looking at a special session in the summer."

The bill that Malloy had introduced on Feb. 8 as the centerpiece of his legislative package seemed to be foundering.

Ojakian said he met with legislative leadership staff to figure out exactly where the two sides were. "Everybody was still a little bit annoyed about what happened the night before from their perspective," Ojakian said. He urged the participants to pick a time to resume the talks.

Fleischmann remembers Donovan saying, "C'mon, we can do this. Let's finalize these outstanding questions. Let's go ahead."

As the day progressed, negotiators reached a compromise on the involvement of charter school organizations in trying to turn around low-performing schools. The biggest sticking point that remained was the role of collective bargaining in those schools.

The administration wanted some flexibility on bargaining so that if a turnaround plan called for changes such as a longer school day or year, it could be done efficiently and quickly. Malloy's original bill called for "financial impact bargaining" on these issues. That meant the teachers, who would choose whether to work in the turnaround schools, would only be able to bargain over wages not over any changes in working conditions.

Ojakian said it was never the governor's intention to dilute collective bargaining but only to attain flexibility. But union leaders said the proposal would severely restrict collective bargaining and leave teachers without an effective bargaining tool if working conditions became unreasonable.

Legislators backed the unions on this point, arguing that teachers had to be comfortable "buying in" to the turnaround plans if they were going to work.

The negotiations continued off and on that Saturday afternoon. Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, stopped by at about 3:30 p.m. She was exhausted after two days at the union's annual meeting in Cromwell, but she joined her lobbyists in the hallway.

At about 6:30 p.m., Williams and some of the group were talking in his Capitol office when they heard loud shouting in the lobby.

"It sounded like a panicked roar," Williams said. "We thought there might have been a fight ... or a protest gone bad."

Williams and the others ran into the hallway and found that lobbyists had changed the channel outside the Senate chamber to the Derby.

It was the roar of people who'd lost their bets, and cheers of those who backed the winning horse. Williams and the others returned to his office and went back to work.

'A Little Diagram'

When that Saturday's Senate session ended, those negotiating gathered in Williams' spacious wood-paneled office around a long oval oak table at about 11 p.m.

Williams and Donovan were there. So were Pryor, Ojakian, Stillman and some staff members.

Time was running out, they knew, but the conversations on collective bargaining were stalled.

Occasionally Williams and Donovan would step into the hallway to ask Levine about some technical point. At about midnight Levine was invited into to Williams' office to talk about the logjam.

Levine explained that teachers wanted assurances that if those involved in turning around a low-performing school wanted to bring in a truly unusual idea or work schedule, teachers would have a chance to fully bargain that idea not just bargain over wages.

"I even drew like a little diagram of how it could work," Levine said, depicting a contract with two different types of working conditions. "I taught fourth grade. I know how to boil it down, to make a simple diagram."

For working conditions considered reasonable perhaps a school day that is an hour or two longer teachers would only bargain over wages.

"But if you are thinking up Draconian ideas and they aren't research-based," then teachers should have the right to fully bargain those conditions, Levine said.

For Williams, it was as if "a huge, bright light bulb went off." He thought it was a "brilliant recommendation" and realized at that moment, "We can do this. Until then I really wasn't sure."

But how to distinguish between what was a reasonable working condition and what was not?

Pryor had a suggestion. If a practice was already in place at other successful schools than it would be considered comparable or reasonable. If a comparable model did not exist, teachers could fully bargain the proposed working condition. If needed, a referee would decide what was comparable and what was not.

Earlier in the development of the bill, legislators had come under criticism for listening too much to union leaders. As it turned out, Williams said, keeping teachers in the loop was beneficial.

"It was critical to resolving the differences," he said, "and it made perfect sense because I think only teachers could have given input necessary to resolve it, because they are the ones in the classroom."

Pryor said that, as far as he knows, the two-pronged form of negotiating is a Connecticut, home-grown solution. He and Williams both said they think it could become a national model.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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