Despite prior opposition to the practice of tying raises for Palo Alto school principals and other district managers to those negotiated with the teachers' union, members of the Board of Education are poised to approve a five-year agreement containing the clause at their May 14 meeting.
At least three current board members, including the president and vice president, have in the past criticized the district's longstanding practice of providing "me too" raises to members of the Palo Alto Management Association (PAMA), a non-unionized group that represents 85 principals, assistant principals, directors, coordinators, school psychologists and other administrators.
Superintendent Don Austin brought the revised memorandum of understanding (MOU) to the board this week, saying that the new, pared-down agreement — now a single page instead of nine — would generate a more positive "partnership" with the administrators.
Board members commented briefly but commended both the management association and new superintendent for what Vice President Todd Collins said is "very much a step in the right direction." No one on the school board raised a question or made a comment about the five-year lock-step pay increase.
In interviews with the Weekly, both Collins and President Jennifer DiBrienza said their thinking on the raises has changed since they ran for election to the school board.
DiBrienza said during the 2016 campaign that "'me too' raises must be a thing of the past."
Collins similarly said that "the 'me too' policy for most if not all administrators does not make sense and should be replaced with an approach based on cost-of-living increases, with adjustments based on individual performance."
During budget-cut conversations at that time, the board discussed doing away with the automatic raises for senior administrators, a change then supported by Board member Ken Dauber. The question of eliminating the linkage came up again during budget talks through 2017, but the board never took any action to answer it.
Then last year, the Palo Alto Management Association received a separate compensation increase — a 1% raise and 1% off-schedule bonus, compared to the 3% raise that teachers received.
This caused such unrest among the senior management-group members, Collins said, that they considered becoming a formal union. So Austin made them an offer, Collins said: Scale back the memorandum of understanding in exchange for five years of salary increases tied to the teachers' union's. They agreed.
Austin said the existing memorandum of understanding with managers — itself unusual — contains "uncommon" provisions, including details on hiring and grievance procedures. The document was born out of intense distrust between managers and then-Superintendent Mary Frances Callan when the Palo Alto Management Association formed in 2006.
The memorandum "looked much more like a traditional union-bargained contract than an outlining of understandings of places with common interests," Austin said.
"The conditions (in the district) now are not the same as when that MOU was created — at least we don't believe they are," he said. "The PAMA group was willing to sign on for a five-year MOU to see if we're going to work together the way I expect us to work together, which is trusting, collaborative, as more of one team instead of having this perception of a barrier between the two groups."
Collins said he sees the trade-off as worthwhile.
"I changed my view based on new information and the situation, which allowed us to get something quite valuable in exchange," Collins said. "If our management team isn't a team then we can't really expect the kind of results that we want."
Both Collins and DiBrienza told the Weekly that developing an effective, performance-based compensation system for the management group has proven more difficult than they realized. DiBrienza said that is particularly so given the variety of positions represented by the group, and high turnover at the district office added to the difficulty.
"That still might be something we work towards. In the meantime, giving them a predictable raise throughout seems fair to me," she said.
Collins said he looked for local public school districts that have created effective management compensation schemes and couldn't find any.
"We'd be out on the bleeding edge trying to invent something that I realized is really hard to do," he said.
Austin defended "me too" raises as a traditional best practice that prevents disparity between the bargaining units and "keeps the process a little more clean and stable."
The memorandum does not apply to members of the district's executive cabinet: the superintendent, assistant superintendent, deputy superintendent and chief business officer.
The board this week also briefly discussed a tentative agreement with the teachers union that would provide a 2% raise this year and 2% off-schedule bonus — salary increases that would then also apply to the managers group, if the new memorandum of understanding is approved.
The proposed raise, effective retroactive to Jan. 7, 2019, which is mid-year, would cost the district $1.2 million this year and $2.4 million in each of the following years. The off-schedule 2% bonus is based on employees' salaries after the raise is applied and would cost the district $2.4 million.
Under the new three-year contract, raises would be negotiated each year, unlike the now-expired contract, which contained three year's worth of salary increases and bonuses.
It also includes a memorandum of understanding to reopen four provisions during the next school year's negotiations, including compensation and benefits, meaning the union and district will quickly return to the table to negotiate raises for the upcoming school year.
Given that the union has not yet ratified the agreement, the board members Tuesday refrained from commenting on it in detail publicly.