TO SHRINK CLASS SIZES IN HAVERHILL (MASS.) PUBLIC Schools, members of the Haverhill Public School Committee, the equivalent of a board of education, have been pushing the district's four curriculum supervisors to teach math, English, science and social studies classes in grades 6-12.
But the district's administrative union, the Haverhill Public Schools Administrative and Supervisory Group, is having none of that.
Beyond stretching the supervisors too thin, the added duties cannot be imposed because they would have to be negotiated, says Tim Maroney, administrative union president at Haverhill schools. "It's a contractual thing," says Maroney, also an assistant principal at Consentino Middle School. "It needs to be bargained."
In another school district in the Northeast, one school official who did not want to be identified described an atmosphere of mistrust, immobility and stalemate when an administrative union was created after 30 years without one. Rules prevented administrators from speaking with a school board member unless another administrator was present.
And at one point, when a well-liked administrator was offered a job out of the district, the school board did not have the flexibility to make a financial counteroffer that diverged from the salary guidelines of the administrative union contract. The district was only able to keep the administrator, the school official says, after pulling additional money from the general fund, potentially cutting into school programs, rather than tapping into funds earmarked for salaries.
Many school superintendents and board members say unions who advocate for and protect principals, assistant principals and other supervisors can erode the flexibility they need to run an efficient district by running them through a gauntlet of bureaucratic restrictions and red tape, like the Northeast district's financial runaround. In the extreme, administrative unions, which can strike and which have their own bylaws like other unions, can put a district in a state of near paralysis when administrators suddenly balk at additional duties outside the union contract, they say.
But for every critic, K12 administrative unions have advocates who say they contribute to improved student achievement and provide a set of checks and balances in a system that exerts undue pressure on administrators such as principals--a minority among the well-organized teachers they supervise.
"Principals and assistant principals are in the middle of the sandwich," says Jill Levy, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, the national administrative union. "They are getting pressure from below and above, and are the only accountable people in the system. If something goes wrong in a school, 'It's the principal. It's the assistant principal.' They feel their voices are not heard because there are louder voices out there. There are many other school unions with larger memberships and deeper pockets."
Judith Wilson, superintendent of Princeton (N.J.) Regional Schools, says administrative unions have taken on more work than they had 30 years ago, when administrative unions were fledgling organizations. "There's a lot of emphasis on student achievement and professional learning," she says. Administrator workshops and other on-the-job educational programs, for example, foster cooperation between districts and unions, Wilson and other union advocates say.
Such programs can help curb administrative turnover and subsequently improve student achievement. A study last year by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a Denver research group, linked superintendent longevity with improved student achievement, even as early as the second year of the superintendent's tenure. But it's not just limited to superintendents, according to Tim Waters, McREL's chief executive. He says the study's findings could also be applied to others, including principals and assistant principals. …