Contract negotiations for Carroll County school employees are going on behind closed doors this year, but when the doors open and the parties emerge, they're often smiling.

The Board of Education, the county's largest employer, is trying a new style of bargaining. Called "principled negotiations," this collegial approach to contract talks was born in the think tanks at Harvard University a decade ago.

The two largest unions, the Carroll County Education Association (teachers) and the Carroll Association of School Employees (instructional assistants, secretaries and licensed practical nurses), were the first to propose principled negotiations a few years ago. The school board is using it for the first time this year and with all five employee unions.

Both sides are mum on details of the talks, but issues likely to be on the table include salary increases. A year ago, employees agreed to give back a 3 percent raise they had negotiated and forgo step increases when the schools had a budget crisis. At the same time, administrators have pointed in the past to the need to improve starting salaries for new teachers, to better lure the best college graduates.

Although they won't discuss details of the talks, school board and union officials say they like this new style of negotiating.

Gone is the posturing. Gone is the opening proposal filled with items each side knows it won't get but wants to use as a bargaining chip.

With principled negotiations, the parties first meet at the table and talk about their interests, try to find those they have in common, and work from there.

"I'm used to having heated conversations with people," said Thomas Kelleher, the negotiator for the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents custodians, maintenance workers and bus drivers.

"I'm used to yelling and screaming," Kelleher said. "We're not doing that. We're meeting."

And, as weird as it feels, he said, "I like it."

"It allows us to be a little more creative," said Ralph Blevins, president of the teachers union. "The old way, each side goes in with a hard position. It was very difficult to get people to listen, without getting sidetracked over a hard position."

For example, the old style had the school board open with a proposed 1 percent salary increase. The unions would propose a 7 percent salary increase. Both sides knew it would end up in the middle by the time the game was over.

"The logic [of principled negotiations] is if you concentrate on items of interest to both sides, then attempt to create options designed to meet those interests, you'll get a positive result," said William Hyde, assistant superintendent for administration. "Both sides can feel their needs have been met."

Now, the parties are starting by sharing data and information.

However, they aren't sharing it with the public. For years, Carroll was the only county in the state that had school contract talks in public. The school board had set it up that way, over the objection of unions.

But last year, when the school board had to return to the bargaining table to persuade unions to accept a salary freeze (even though they had a contract with an increase), the board agreed to hold those talks in private with union negotiators. This year, because it is the first year in which the parties try principled negotiations, the school board decided to have closed talks again, Hyde said.

Union leaders are happy about the closed doors. Allowing anyone to walk in on a session gives a fragmented picture, they said.

Kelleher said he prefers closed doors because he can make references to specific employees and grievances without violating confidentiality.

The other two unions represent administrators and supervisors, and food service workers.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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