When Candy Smiley talks about the school district, the pronoun she uses subtly belies the unique lesson Poway has to teach.

“We,” she says over and over again.

“We didn’t spend the $6 million from the feds. We can’t control the state budget,” she says. “When we got the money, we could’ve hired teachers. We decided collectively not to, that we would save it so that we could ensure that teacher salaries would return.”

Smiley leads the union for teachers at Poway Unified School District. Further south, things aren’t so friendly. The San Diego Unified School District has repeatedly made end-of-days financial warnings, only to find a way to put off painful cuts at the last second. Meanwhile, union leaders have engaged in a full-throated campaign to discredit the district’s numbers and the people that produce them. Nobody trusts the numbers; nobody trusts each other.

Things used to be like this in Poway, too.

Over the last two decades, though, the union and district have forged an uncommonly collaborative bond that started with trust on the budget and has now gone far beyond.

Upheaval in the leadership of the San Diego teachers union has led to a pledge of greater unity with the district. Meanwhile, the district has continued to plead with the union to at least sit down and start negotiating a solution to a fiscal crisis that looks likely to put hundreds of teachers out of a job.

If both the district and its teachers are serious about repairing their relationship, then Poway is as good a place as any for them to study.

I originally interviewed Smiley and Poway Superintendent John Collins for a story we did on the revolution happening in teacher evaluation, but Poway’s tale didn’t fit directly into the story.

Still, I learned a lot from our conversation and many of you have asked for more reporting highlighting solutions being used by other communities.

So here are four takeaways from my research:

How They Came to Trust Each Other

The way Collins and Smiley describe it, Poway once struggled with many of the same problems other local school districts have today. The district and its unions argued over money. The budgets weren’t transparent. Nobody trusted each other.

But about a decade and a half ago, things changed. A new superintendent came aboard. The union president wanted to throw out the emotions and just get down to the data.

So, the district and the union sat down and went through the budget line by line. They no longer argued about what the problems were, but rather simply how to solve the problems.

From Smiley:

Once you start talking about the data, you start building a trusting relationship.

Everybody grew to understand the budget in a very honest, transparent way. It wasn’t “he said, she said.” That is the way we have been doing our business ever since.

Today, the two groups still sit down together in a room five times a year to do this. The budget is color-coded to show everyone what’s gone up and down. For every question the union has, the administration has an answer and documentation to back it up.

In San Diego Unified, the district has offered to bring the union in and go line by line through the budget. So far, the union hasn’t taken them up on the offer.

The union argues that the district has a history of miscommunication when it comes to its budget. And it has a point. District officials admit that for years, their budget was in disarray, and that incorrect information was often given out.

But the same officials say that confusion is a thing of the past. District Deputy Superintendent of Business Operations Phil Stover says confidently that he knows where every penny in the district is being spent. All the union has to do is ask, he says, and he can lay it all out.

In Poway, that’s already happening.

Smiley again:

We can ask any question we want and I have complete confidence that I will get a straight answer and there will be back-up documentation.

Pretty soon, you just start building a trust. And when they are honest with me we are honest with them.

I feel very responsible for this relationship that was built before I arrived.

Says Collins:

Over the years what that’s resulted is a relationship with the union that’s based in trust and open and honest communication. Everything’s on the table. All our records are available.

We’ve already agreed on what the facts are and then we focus on solving the problem.

Instead of arguing we don’t want to do this, it was, what are we going to do to keep the district from going bankrupt.

Collins and Smiley even issue joint communications to employees and management.

What That Means Practically for District Finances

In Poway, teachers have taken a 4.3 percent salary rollback and the district has offered early retirement to avoid layoffs. Not out of the ordinary. Other places, like San Diego Unified, have also made similar moves.

However, the rollbacks expire this year and the two sides say the district can handle the increased costs. They decided not to spend one-time money from the federal government immediately after receiving it, instead putting it in a reserve. And they’re already talking about renegotiating if everything doesn’t pan out.

“They agreed if things get worse we’ll be back at the table,” Collins said.

One Reason Behind the Relationship

Poway teachers are a rare breed in San Diego County.

They’re part of the American Federation of Teachers, one of two big umbrella teachers unions in the country. Most teachers across the region, and those in San Diego, belong to the National Education Association.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has written about, AFT leader Randi Weingarten has been pushing for unions to be actively participating in school reforms.

“I know the AFT has been very progressive,” Collins said.

What That Means for Everything Else

Now, back to the reason I interviewed Smiley and Collins to begin with.

There’s a revolution happening right now in how data is used to evaluate teachers and push accountability. It’s very controversial, and San Diego Unified isn’t having any of it.

Big districts across the country, though, have been.

So I wanted to know if Poway’s considering the use of sophisticated data to measure teacher performance.

Their answer: The two sides are in the early stages of meeting and talking about this very thing.

The Poway Federation of Teachers has surveyed its members. They recently had an all-day meeting about assessments with teacher union representatives from every school, every principal, the superintendent, his cabinet and four of the five school board members.

Smiley says evaluation needs to go beyond just test scores. There needs to be multiple measures.

“I’m confident that we will be building our own evaluation tool and we’ll decide if we use test scores,” she said. “We hope we’ll be designing this — rather than having someone else design it for us.”

Collins, not surprisingly, agreed.

“We’re going to try to get some models in before we get told how to do it. We’re hoping we can show the state a better model,” he said.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert in Poway education. This piece is based off of two interviews and a tip I’d received. If you think it’s off base or there’s something I’m missing, comment on this story or email me. I’m the editor of VOSD and you can reach me at andrew.donohue@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0526.

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