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HUNTINGTON BEACH : War-Torn School District at Peace

For years, the Huntington Beach Union High School District had been known for its labor unrest.

Bitter disputes over teachers’ contracts had erupted into strikes in 1976 and 1979, and feuds in subsequent years nearly led to more walkouts. As surely as teachers could expect to file their grades each semester, they could count on picketing, work slowdowns and denouncing trustees at board meetings.

But things are quieter now. Contracts are amicably settled within weeks of the annual budget approval. Teachers now praise how the district is managed, and administrators are pleased by their relationship with the union.

Both sides attribute improved relations chiefly to a 2-year-old program called Relationships by Objective, a labor-mediation technique adopted from the private sector.

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The program began after Supt. Larry Kemper and a newly elected school board pledged to improve labor relations. Teachers, administrators and board members then gathered for a weekend retreat to discuss teachers’ complaints. From those meetings, they drafted a document that spelled out ways that the district could make teachers happier.

A Relationships by Objective steering committee was appointed, including teachers from each of the five high schools, district administrators and board members. Since then, that committee has met monthly for round-table discussions to vent gripes, analyze school board proposals and exchange teaching and management ideas.

And the results, they say, have been remarkable.

“Before RBO, I was counting the years until my retirement,” said Doug Scott, a Marina High School teacher and president of the teacher’s union. “Now I don’t even think about it. It has helped me do my job better, and therefore, it makes me enjoy what I’m doing more.”

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And as more teachers become involved in the process, it has gained increasing support, participants say. Under the program, up to 85% of the teachers at each high school serve on subcommittees that address such issues as attendance, discipline, curriculum and disaster preparation.

One of the district’s biggest labor relations problems, teachers say, was dealing with the suspicion that administrators were not being truthful with the union about some parts of the budget.

“But because of the open communication we now have, (teachers) know we’re not fabricating anything,” said Bonnie Castrey, a five-year school board member who helped establish the program and serves on the committee.

A similar program for the district’s classified employees, called Team Building and Communication, has also been started and has yielded similar results, officials said.

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Castrey, a professional labor mediator, predicts such programs will become a cornerstone of shared decision-making in public education.


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