My Turn: Explaining school negotiations to children

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2003

Parents in the Juneau School District might consider the popular Harry Potter stories as a means for understanding and sharing with their children the nature of current contract negotiations between teachers and management. In fact, through this literary vehicle parents and children might even consider proactive steps to help the negotiating parties refocus on the real goal of public education.

Like Harry Potter, every child has the potential for becoming someone unique and special through strong family and community-sponsored educational institutions meant to provide opportunities and experiences to develop every child's potential. As at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry, where Harry attends, the JSD has a corps of exceptionally committed and capable teachers and support staff who are daily doing amazing things to help students gain knowledge and insights required for their future success. But, while I have personally seen these district employees continually demonstrate commitment to the important mission in our schools, other diabolical characters are undermining their efforts.

First among such characters is Lee "Voldemort" Wilson, the district's negotiations henchman. Tactics of pitting school employee groups against each other, declaring impasse prematurely to infuriate and stall the process, and building confidence schemes to create an atmosphere of distrust (and disgust) among teachers, is nothing new for Wilson. He began his labor relations career as an Anchorage Education Association strike leader in 1979 - when it was against Alaska law for teachers to strike - but quickly became a management tool when offered the opportunity to use his powers against former friends - who had even elected him AEA president! Reviewing published articles over the course of his career in Anchorage since then, one discovers that the relationship between teachers and the district have been acrimonious and detrimental to what most would consider community goals for public education (Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 1, 1994).

Many of the other characters in this Juneau drama appear to be one thing at election time and somebody different when acting as school board members or administrators. They say they support teachers, they commit to building better schools and refurbishing old ones, but their words are cheap. For example, as a substitute teacher over three years in the Juneau School District, I earned $70 per day while training to become Alaska-certified to teach. My retired 73-year-old father earns $120 per day subbing in Anchorage and has never taken a single university education course.

Additionally, Juneau parents working in the General Government Unit can probably identify quickly with how betrayal by elected officials can turn on a dime when the same person switches sides to serve his own interests. By allowing themselves to be parties to such abuse, parents in the GGU are modeling what their own children might expect as adults - but students who read J.K. Rowling's works learn that Harry Potter is never a victim.

This is how the fanciful story goes in all of the Harry Potter books. Nothing is as it really appears, only those who have special powers can participate in the world of wizards, and it takes some really exceptional children to sort through what is good or evil to survive the challenges they face in this ever-changing scenario. For the politically inbred community of Juneau - where local parents' commitment to quality education is probably the only constant in public policy - realization that reasonable adults in positions of public trust cannot sit down and work out an employment agreement with the professionals who are entrusted to teach community children is quite an indictment.

When Harry Potter faces the Chamber of Secrets, Harry takes ethical action - and he doesn't need somebody from someplace else to do his dirty work.

Donn Liston worked for NEA-Alaska in Juneau for nine years.

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