When opponents are ready to make peace, they can do it. It’s a lesson that history has taught over and over again.
It’s a shame it took so long to do that in the Williamsville School District, but peace appears to be in the offing as the superintendent and teachers union work to resolve their differences. Good for them.
It’s been three years of acrimony for which – no surprise – both sides share blame. The superintendent, Scott Martzloff, was overly aggressive in conducting a legitimate investigation regarding collusion between the union and a former assistant superintendent. In June, a hearing officer substantiated that the assistant superintendent, Kim A. Kirsch, had in fact, worked to undermine and oust Martzloff. Kirsch was found guilty of insubordination, misconduct and other charges.
So, to be clear: The union was surreptitiously and dishonorably trying to undermine the superintendent and the superintendent was acting in ways he wishes he could change. One of those could have been his harsh year-opening speech in 2014. This year, he was conciliatory.
Things change. It’s just too bad that both sides were so dug in to their positions that they wasted time and money on matters they both now want to put behind them. They could have done that earlier.
Martzloff and union leaders met late last month in an effort to clear the air. Although the moment was fraught with apprehension, it appears to have gone well. Maybe it’s just that both sides are bloodied enough to want to call it a day. Or maybe they suddenly remembered the students who are supposed to be their focus. The firing of Kirsch, who earned her full $170,000-a-year salary in the three years since she was suspended, had to have been a turning point.
“A lot of us were nervous about how it was going to go,” Williamsville Teachers Association President Michelle Licht said. “But at the end of the meeting it felt collaborative. It felt like we were ready as a group to take steps forward.”
One of the issues involved was Martzloff’s action in accessing the district email system in June 2014 to read some employees’ messages while investigating the Kirsch matter. Union leaders criticized it as both unauthorized and inappropriate, although Martzloff said he granted himself access through the proper channels, which he said were neither unusual nor an invasion of privacy.
Critically, though, he followed up his defense by reassuring the union that no one currently has access to the system. He also said that although he reserved the authority to do it again, “I’m not going to unless there’s a situation that comes up that demonstrates a need to do so.”
That helped to break the ice, Licht said, especially given that everyone left the meeting with a clear understanding of how such issues would be handled in the future. Who knew? Talking is good.
It’s a lesson that shouldn’t have needed explaining. Throughout the public sector – especially in the Buffalo School District – administrators and union leaders should take it to heart. When it’s all conflict all the time, at least one of the parties is failing in its obligation. Likely both are, as occurred in Williamsville.
Here’s hoping this is the start of something better and that the two sides don’t backslide into acrimony. That can easily happen unless adversaries work at putting an ugly episode behind them. To that end, both should make it their job to build trust with the other.
It will never be perfect; this is an adversarial system, after all. But relations should never again spin so far out of control without an effort to regain a sense of balance. In the vast majority of cases, some solution – imperfect, perhaps – can be found.
It begins by talking.