Labor unrest has found an old home in education over the past year, as teachers from West Virginia to Los Angeles have gone on strike over working conditions, wages and health care.
This wave has not reached Wyoming. There are myriad reasons for that, even after years of state budget cuts. For one, teachers here are better paid than most of their peers. For another, there’s historical precedent: School funding in Wyoming has been driven by districts filing lawsuits, not educators holding a picket line. That’s to say nothing of whether Wyoming would politically or culturally support any such strike, even if conditions deteriorated.
But locally, there is another reason that this movement has not reached Natrona County, Wyoming’s second-largest district: the compact. It is a 15-page document, accompanied by an equally long glossary, and was repeatedly referred to as the constitution of the district by those who crafted it years ago and work under it now.
In 2019, strikes may be all but ruled out in Wyoming, but in 2001, before the compact was crafted, unrest was boiling in the Natrona County School District. In June of that year, leadership of the various school associations — for educators and classified staff — were called into a room. They were told that the district’s equivalent of a collective bargaining agreement would be tossed out, said Doreen McGlade, who had just been elected to serve on the Natrona County Education Association and would later become its president.
“It felt like a sucker punch,” she explained.
“What little trust was left was dissolved,” administrator Jim Lowham, who later served as superintendent, said in “Education and the Making of a Democratic People.” “Relationships that were tenuous prior to the termination (of the agreement) became nonexistent.”
“It was just so ugly,” recalled Crystal Mueller, who would later work in human resources for the district but at that time worked at Wyoming Medical Center. “It not only affected the school district but the community.”
As McGlade remembers it, the negotiations around the previous agreement had broken down badly, which led to the board throwing out the decades-old agreement and sent the district spiraling. A survey was taken to judge teacher interest in a strike. A parent group formed calling on both sides to negotiate.
“It was not a good time to be a member of the Natrona County School District,” McGlade said.
Both sides were entrenched until a meeting of a half-dozen women over coffee and desserts. McGlade, other labor representatives and at least a few school board members gathered, ostensibly to discuss the situation. Instead, McGlade and Lowham said, the conversation revolved around the women’s personal experiences. It showed to both sides, Lowham recounted, that the other group was human.
This obvious but obfuscated foothold established, management and labor agreed to begin meeting again late in the summer. Two national trainers arrived to teach administrators, educators, classified staff and school board members how to interact on a more human level. But the trainers realized the situation was beyond a typical session, McGlade said. There was bad blood. They began to tackle the issues specific to the unrest in the district while keeping the interpersonal relationships — and common goals — ever present.
“This is not good for kids, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do to fix this because we’ve got to do the right thing by our kids,” Gayle Schnorenberg, who is the president of the classified staff association, said of conversations between board and association leaders.
“And it came out that children — everybody agreed — that children, our students, were at the center of what was important to us,” McGlade said.
This foundation was laid, and atop it, the compact was built. Formally called the Compact of Trust, the document is relatively abstract. It does not set a salary scale or lay out overtime provisions. But it enshrines core values and principles at the heart of the district, and it establishes committees and processes to deal with the concrete details — like pay and benefits — that make those values and principles a reality.
It became the umbrella that covers Natrona County’s schools. Several educators referred to it as the glue that held the district together.
“I could just see what a jewel they had,” Mueller said. The compact “will get them through anything, and it has. Closing schools, when we had a lot of money, when there wasn’t as much money.”
Importantly, the compact’s subcommittees — and the process by which it was drafted — included a broad cross-section of the district: teachers, administrators, principals, school board members and classified staff. Previously, the groups were isolated and dealt with each other individually. McGlade and Schnorenberg said that before the compact, the teachers would negotiate first, and what was left would be distributed to other employees.
Now, labor and management sit collectively to resolve issues. A consensus is needed to advance decisions made by the vital subcommittee of the compact, and that group was filled with a wide swath of representatives from across the district. Board approval was still required, but because board members were involved in crafting the changes with their workforce, the elected officials typically accepted any recommendations, said Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources.
That committee, Echols continued, is often referred to as “the keeper of the flame.”
You could be forgiven for thinking all this language — the compact of truth, keeper of the flame — seems like it’s out of a dystopian young adult novel. But the document and the process it creates is treated more like a holy book and doctrine within the school district.
“I always equated it for new employees to the Constitution of the United States,” Mueller said. “It’s very diverse, and it’ll last a long time if people understand it. I hope in my part I helped them understand the important components. It isn’t just one thing. There’s so much power in it.”