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Partners for Change

The Cleveland school district is making itself a showcase of how to go about transforming a school system. Last week, the district and its teachers union unveiled a tentative three-year contract. On Tuesday, the contract won approval from the school board. It is no simple accomplishment that the district has come this far in negotiating a new operating system for teachers.

Last year, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Eric Gordon, the chief executive of the school district, put forward a proposal to reinvent the low-performing system. The plan was a virtual obstacle course. For one, it required legislative approval to move forward on several controversial proposals, including teacher evaluations and compensation.

Most of all, the Cleveland Plan needed teachers and the Cleveland Teachers Union to be eager participants in the transformation. For a plan that called for such policies as sharing funds with charter schools, eliminating promotions and assignments by seniority and doing away with salary step increases in favor of performance criteria, winning over teachers promised to be a hard sell.

But the mayor and the leadership of both the district and the teachers union are beating the odds, working out differences that often have stymied school reform at all levels, local, state and national. Over the past year, the Cleveland Plan has cleared some high hurdles. From a rocky start, the union and school leadership appear to have achieved an effective working relationship, reaching compromises on sticky issues such as tenure, teacher assignments and seniority. On the basis of the collaboration, the Statehouse, with broad, bipartisan support last summer , approved the legislation to implement the Cleveland Plan. More surprising, by a wide margin, Cleveland voters approved a whopping 15-mill levy in November, in effect endorsing the transformation effort.

Still, nothing sours a working relationship quicker than negotiating the nitty-gritties of a contract. Last year, David Quolke, the union president, insisted that teachers want “to show that we are a partner that can be trusted and should be worked with from the beginning.” Teachers are yet to vote on the contract. But in presenting a contract with structural changes in such hot-button issues as a compensation system, hiring and firing and work hours, the union and school leaders demonstrate a genuine partnership for change.