Tuesday, November 29, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.

A key component of the Poway Unified School District’s success has been its stable relationship between management and labor, a calm that Superintendent Don Phillips attributes to a respectful partnership between the two parties that has developed over the years.

“It’s a very collaborative relationship,” Phillips said, describing the interest-based bargaining process the district and teachers use to reach agreement.

This differs from the traditional, more adversarial collective bargaining used in many other districts, which Phillips describes as one party saying, “I want a full loaf,” and the other party responding by saying, “I want two loaves back.” With traditional bargaining approaches, “we may [not] be happy when we get done because we didn’t really talk about the issues and what the concerns were.”

Phillips said interest-based bargaining is different “because we’re not positional. We can listen … and then try to find creative solutions that can meet both of our interests. Our interests overlap by 70 or 80 percent.

“If you listened in on our negotiations and discussions, which are ongoing, you would be hard-pressed to know who was management and who was labor talking. You’re trying to walk in each other’s moccasins and that’s part of the interest-based process.”

For an interest-based model to work, Phillips said everybody has to feel that they’re ahead by doing it, compared to what they would have had otherwise. “If there are winners and losers under an interest-based model, it won’t work,” he said. “So all the parties have to feel like they’re getting the better answers.”

A significant factor in the district’s healthy labor relations, according to Phillips, is that Poway’s 1,600 teachers are affiliated with the more moderate American Federation of Teachers rather than the National Education Association and its California component, the California Teachers Association. Phillips said Poway is the only school district in the county whose teachers union is AFT rather than NEA.

“Back in the ’60s or ’70s, NEA was the professional organization, and AFT was kind of the hard-line labor organization in the country,” Phillips said. “And then Al Shanker, who was this really phenomenal, progressive thinker at AFT (who became its president), shifted gears. He realized that this wasn’t going to create the profession that he envisioned and he basically created a whole new culture within AFT. AFT became the progressive union, became forward-looking.”

He said the Poway Federation of Teachers has “very much fallen into that tradition and really taken on that banner, [although] we have some folks who’d love to go back to the good old days … [with] the signs [and] concerted action. You get some labor people saying the world was a lot simpler when [they] didn’t have to go to the table and figure this out, [when they] could just go in and say, ‘We demand something and then you figure it out, school district.’ They were not necessarily part of the solution.

“I have some principals who don’t like where we’re going because they’d just as soon be in charge, so you get that issue, too. You get resistance on all sides. But the majority view has been that this model has served everybody well.”

Phillips said Don Raczka, president of the PFT, attended Harvard’s interest-based training in the mid-1990s, as did a number of other education leaders and Poway teachers. “And that started to create an approach to interest-based bargaining,” Phillips said.

One important feature in the PUSD’s labor contract is the absence of the controversial post-and-bid clause, which allows teachers to transfer to any posted opening in the district based on seniority. Although defended vigorously by many teachers unions, the concept of post-and-bid has been blamed by others for restricting management’s ability to provide principals with site control and stable, qualified staff.

Building trust

“I didn’t mind having disagreements [with the union] about priorities,” he said. “What I didn’t want to disagree about were the facts. We should at least agree about what’s in the budget and we shouldn’t be about hiding numbers and dollars. You don’t build trust. So how do you act in a trustworthy manner? And both the federation and the district, we’ve done that.”

Phillips said he is honest and open about the district’s finances and has frequent discussions face to face, not just once a year, with union leadership about the numbers. “Normally that would be done in a cabinet meeting or with principals only,” he said.

A philosophy that guides Phillips is that if you act trustworthy, a byproduct might be trust. “In other words, if I act with integrity and I act in an honest manner and I fully disclose, over time you might build trust,” he said. “But you don’t start with trust.

“If you say we’re not going to have any money left at the end of the year, and you end up with $2 million in your ending balance, that doesn’t build trust, because you didn’t disclose. If you’re disclosing all the way along the line, you’re acting in a trustworthy manner. That’s a continuous, ongoing conversation.”

Phillips said an important consequence of the healthy relationship between management and labor in Poway has been the creation of ongoing programs for career development for teachers. “I’ve always been very collaborative in how I think about working with teachers and very respectful of that,” he said.

“We’re trying to develop a career ladder for teachers, we’re engaging them in instructional work through the federation and the district in ways that most school districts would say, ‘You can’t do that; that’s management prerogative.’ We said no, [that] ultimately we aren’t going to be very powerful unless we engage teachers in this work.

“We have a new professional development model that’s very exciting, where teachers can be engaged in not only efforts that we provide but also efforts that they design. We think over time we’ve built a relationship that has allowed us to do more and more interesting and innovative things and take on more interesting endeavors than we would have otherwise.

“And we’ve gone through hard times … without labor unrest. This year we worked really hard [for a teachers’ salary increase], because we all recognized that we had to do something because our people were giving so much and they couldn’t carry all the weight of the state reductions. We did a 2-percent in July and a 2-percent as of the mid-year. We need to stay in a relatively competitive position to attract and retain and hold onto our most valuable resource, which are people.”

Phillips is proud of his relationship with his teachers, and he hopes other districts can benefit and learn from Poway’s experiences. “We’re doing a presentation on this model (for the California School Boards Association) coming up in December,” he said. “Our message with boards and superintendents and labor people is you’ve got to start to act in a trustworthy manner.”

Although he said the relationship with the teachers’ union, like all relationships, needs constant attention, he believes what they have built together will serve both the children and the district’s employees well.

Successes and disappointments

Phillips, who enjoys tennis and golf, has two grown sons and has been married to his wife Robyn for 33 years. “We’re soul mates,” he said, calling himself very fortunate.

His greatest regret in his professional life, he said, was not staying in Vista longer as a high school principal. “I was hired [in Vista] to open a new school,” he said, calling it challenging work. “I’ve always been involved in change and improvement. I’m not a maintainer. I’m a builder, an organizer, a change agent – and I like doing that work.”

Phillips could not identify one specific story as his greatest success. Rather, he pointed to a commitment to the success of all kids.

“If you talk to people when I was a teacher or principal or associate superintendent or superintendent, now with three districts, I think they would say that throughout my career I’ve always been a voice for and an advocate for all students and for high standards for all youngsters,” he said. “I don’t think I would point to one specific case.

“What’s exciting about being here is that we’ll have totally rebuilt the district. I think we’ll continue to see increases in student achievement like we’ve seen in these first four years. They’ll continue to go up. And I think we’ll be preparing more kids at higher levels … Being part of that team, kind of driving that effort, is really exciting work.”

Phillips, who is in his fifth year at Poway, said he plans to stay at least another four years. “This will be the longest I’ve ever stayed anywhere,” he said. “I’ve always moved pretty quickly. Actually staying long enough to make some of your own messes, then having to clean some of them up – and also staying long enough to not only start things, initiate them, getting them under way, but also to see them through to completion – has been very interesting and challenging and exciting work. I love what I’m doing. It’s fun to be part of this.”

Phillips said he plans to continue to be involved in education in future years. “I’m tempted to become involved at the university level, working with young folks learning how to be school administrators or superintendents. I’m very interested in the work by AVID, very interested in the work at the College Board, and working with schools to increase the numbers of students who are college ready. I don’t want to sell bleachers, and I don’t want to sell textbooks or be a salesperson. I’m not interested in doing that kind of work.”

Thanks in part to Phillips’ outreach efforts, Poway is now perceived as more of a community partner and major contributor to the education discussion than in prior years.

“I think that is a shift,” he said. “Historically, we tended to circle the wagons and look internally, and we tended to be pretty self-assured that we had all the answers. We’re now much more engaged in not trying to duplicate, not trying to discover everything on our own – but taking good ideas and making them our own and building them into our culture. We’re engaged in a lot of different efforts to benchmark best practices [and] understand what others are doing, so we’re trying to look beyond ourselves.

“And we’re trying to contribute beyond just our boundaries. I think we’ve really tried to reach out more and be more a part of the county efforts. And we strive to be contributing not only at the local but at the state and national levels.”

Phillips said the district is involved in state and federal policy discussions and funding issues, and has written several papers including one on national special education issues that he said was very influential. “I think we see a responsibility beyond just our district, and our board is very supportive of that – trying to keep us engaged,” he said.

“We want to be on the forefront in terms of educational quality,” Phillips said. “That’s a reputation that the district has, and has had for a long time. There was some sense when I arrived that that was slipping. But I don’t hear those discussions any more. I think we’re clearly perceived as on the move and in good ways.

“What’s been most pleasing about that and most challenging has been we’ve done it probably in the worst of financial times. I feel like that’s an accomplishment that we were able to go through some of the hardest financial times that anybody can recall in the state’s history, yet we’ve been able to move forward.”

Read part one.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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