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Field Trip: Analytics in Collective Bargaining


School district negotiations with teachers unions can be challenging. School business officials not only have multiple stakeholders to work with and keep informed — including the school board, administration and staff, and the surrounding community — they are also tasked keeping the district solvent in the long term. Without a solid picture of the districts’ financial status both now and projected into the future, it’s hard to know how dollars should be allocated in union negotiations.

In this conversation with Kim Knight, Executive Director of Business Services at Dieringer School District in Lake Tapps, Washington, we look at the role that analytics play in providing that financial picture, and how Kim and her team prepare to come to the collective bargaining table. She explores:

  • The questions they ask and the data they look at to answer them
  • How they prepare and present data to teachers unions, the school board, and the community, to tell the story of where the district’s finances are today, and where they expect them to be in the future
  • How clear, solid data and analytics helps to build trust between parties during collective bargaining
  • How the use of analytics ultimately helps their business office decide how to put funds to the best use to serve students


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Full Transcript  

Collective bargaining negotiations have a reputation for being contentious. On one side, you have a group of hardworking teachers with a number of asks, and on the other, a school district with a limited budget. Unstoppable force, meet immovable object, right? But maybe it doesn’t have to always be that way.


KIM KNIGHT: It’s easy to get sucked into that adversarial position. And really, that’s not what it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to be able to identify problems and help each other solve those problems. And the beauty of the analytics and the data is that sometimes you find out what the initial problem was identified, isn’t the problem at all.


From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.


Today we’re talking with Kim Knight, who is the Executive Director of Business Services for Deringer School District, located in western Washington state. Today, she talks to us about how her district uses analytics to prepare for collective bargaining negotiations.


KIM KNIGHT: And I know that’s different for a lot of different states, but in Washington state, there is a very strong union presence in our districts,and in our educational process. So depending on the district you’re in, you may have just one union that covers classified and certificated. I know that there are larger districts that have as many as 12 different union contracts that they deal with. So it can be a rather daunting process.


A challenge, no doubt, intensified by each districts’ unique circumstances. Dieringer, for example, is Washington state’s largest school district without a high school, despite covering just five square miles. Still, Kim feels equipped for these challenges given her comfort with data and her commitment to a service mindset.


KIM KNIGHT: I think that I approach this perhaps a little different than most brand new business managers were, in that I was really blessed to be raised by two lifelong educators. So my dad is in his 57th year. He’s a superintendent. One of the longest acting ones in the country, actually. And my mom was a preschool director, a preschool teacher.


And so I grew up hearing stories of, number one, what is in the best interest of the child? And number two, of how very close my dad has always been to all of his business managers. And so that was really a bonus for me coming into this position of having a better understanding of what that partnership was supposed to look like.


It’s really easy to fall into the trap as a business manager, that it’s your job just to watch over the expenses and watch the bottom line. And I quickly found out that’s not true. I’m really in a position of trying to make sure that “Yes” is possible and that there is funding available for our priorities.


And so you have to use the analytics to make sure you’re getting the most out of the funding that you receive, so that your kids are getting the maximum benefit possible.


RYAN ESTES: How does analytics help you to tell a story that helps you get done what you need to do in your job?


KIM KNIGHT: I think every district has a different story to tell. I have found it is by far easier to tell a story with visuals than to just try and sit and talk to somebody. If I tell you I am 2% over budget, it might be, “Okay.” If I put a graph down in front of you that says, “We’re way over here on the right. We should be somewhere in the left quadrant,” then that really is something easy for people to hook onto and say, “You know, we have to make some changes” or “We’re okay.” And so I like to present some very easy visuals for board meetings to go right up to our board, and they get shared with our community members.


And of course we’ve all been doing board meetings by Zoom for the last year and a half, but it does make it easier then, for the community to take a look at what data and information. And it’s a really digestible form for them, and then can turn around and send that to my IT department, and they can post it right on the website. And it translates well from one group to another. So what I am showing my board is what the union can easily see. And it’s what my parents can see when they’re considering, “Where do I want to send my students to school?”


I asked Kim to describe the last few years in her district, and specifically, what factors have influenced their collective bargaining negotiations.


KIM KNIGHT: So this is one that is an ongoing conversation in Washington state. There was a lawsuit brought by family back in 2007, that the state was failing to meet its fundamental duty of funding education. And it took 10 years for it to be resolved. And part of that was the legislature’s reluctance to overhaul everything.


And what came out of it then was that they changed entirely the way that they approached funding schools. So it used to be, if you had a teacher with 16 years of experience and a doctoral degree that you would receive X amount of funding for that teacher. Now it was, they decided they were going to fund you an average. And it was an average salary based on what their prototypical school model said you have. So for a school of 400 students, you would get 12 teachers. Well, of course you can’t negotiate just for those 12 teachers. You negotiate for the extra five teachers that you bring in on top of what the state funds. And it doesn’t work for districts that have much more experience in their staff. Right now I have 40% of my staff with over 16 years of experience. They’ve all maxed out at the top of our salary schedule.


RYAN ESTES: So, so they have seen their salaries rise over the past several years already.


KIM KNIGHT: Well, they have. What came from the state was, “We fixed funding. We fully funded you. We put an influx of billions of dollars into our education.” What they didn’t tell anybody was that they capped everybody’s levies, so there wasn’t new money, it was just a shift in where the money was coming from. But what the unions heard was, “There are billions of dollars out there for salaries and it’s ours for the taking, we just have to negotiate for it.” So for Dieringer School District specifically ,their certificated staff has seen an increase of almost 30% over the last four years. And so then it becomes. “What is sustainable? Can we keep this going? Where do we go from here and what is the next ask on the table?”


And that really is the story for school boards. That’s the first question when we come in with a proposal: “Well, can we make it work? And for how long is this sustainable?” And what you have to communicate to the union is, “Well, we can make it work, but we’re going to have to cut 10 teachers to offset. So what are your priorities?”


RYAN ESTES: And I think it’s important of course, in the middle of this conversation to recognize that both the teachers and you are all trying to work toward, you know, the good of the student and trying to simply figure out, “Okay, how do we do this with the funding that we have available?”


KIM KNIGHT: It is, and it’s easy to get sucked into that adversarial position. And really, that’s not what it’s supposed to be. You’re supposed to be able to identify problems and help each other solve those problems. And the beauty of the analytics and the data is that sometimes you find out what the initial problem was identified isn’t the problem at all.


So when they come to you and they say, “Well, we would like some additional compensation for larger class sizes.” And you can run the comparisons, and you say, “Well, we have the smallest class sizes in the county, so it doesn’t seem like class size is really the problem, perhaps our problem is actually our inability to attract enough substitutes.” And we need to shift the focus to substitute compensation rather than classroom teacher compensation. But it gets you to that place of working together to make things run smoother for both the district and the teachers. And that’s what’s important.


RYAN ESTES: You started talking about some of the specific pieces of data that you look at. Can you talk a little bit more, flesh out the picture for me, of what kinds of data that you look at to come to the table in these negotiations equipped with what you need to make a compelling argument? With what you need to make the kind of decisions you need to make, looking to the future? What data points are you looking at?


KIM KNIGHT: You always have to start with the enrollment. Is your enrollment growing? Is it declining? Because of course that generates your revenue and being in a five square mile district, there really is not a lot of room for growth. We’re pretty stable. At least we were, leading into the pandemic. But that means we’re not going to see any big jumps in what’s coming in from state funding.


So once you have your revenue sort of in place, then I look at things like, “Where are we spending in administration compared to surrounding districts? Are we really top heavy?” And that’s one of those that’s a tough piece to communicate because as a smaller district, we have the same need for a transportation manager, but it’s going to look like we’re spending far more per pupil than the surrounding districts.


So you always have to be able to backfill the story: here’s your data. Here’s what we got to get to this place. Are you willing to eliminate transportation? No? Okay. So let’s just set that aside and let’s look at a different piece then. Look at what you’re spending on instruction per pupil versus your surrounding districts.


What is your average salary compared to the surrounding districts? How many additional days do you give, if any, for training and professional development, and what do we spend on technology? Of course, that’s a huge one right now in the pandemic. And it can be one where if you’re on the wrong end of that, maybe we need to talk about tech training rather than talking about base salary. And so I just try to do a lot of peer comparisons, where we are in our nearest neighbors and where we are compared to those of similar size, and put together a state of the district that I can present at the table. And it’s just a launching point for our conversations.


RYAN ESTES: You started off with enrollment there, talking about enrollment, and I’m curious, what has happened over the past year and a half? What have you seen in terms of student enrollment? What did 2020 and 2021 look like?


KIM KNIGHT: So we had about a 12% decrease in enrollment in 2021. There was a significant loss of initial revenue. The state did come back last spring and decided they would put in place an enrollment hold harmless, so that they kept districts’ hold for that year. That’s not true for this year. We saw a very modest bounce back in our enrollment numbers for this year.


There are some districts, specifically the more rural districts, where they saw most of their students return. And I think that’s just an indicator of what options those families have in terms of daycare and commuting. Again, being where we are and with the affluence of our community, our parents perhaps have more options for staying home with their students in homeschooling.


So we did budget for only about 10 students more than last year. And we came in at 12. So if we’re right about on, because there have been significant savings during the pandemic, in terms of supplies and fuel for the buses and just even electricity, we have put enough away in fund balance that we can offset that loss of revenue for this year. We can’t do it for another two years or three years, so we’re going to have to look very closely at where our staffing aligns with our enrollment.


RYAN ESTES: So I’m going to ask you in a moment about the negotiations themselves, but obviously you can’t just say, “Okay, data points, great. I’m good to go.” You need to put your data into a format that helps you to make sense of it. What is that process for you? How do you do that? How do you prepare to come to the table with this information?


KIM KNIGHT: Like I said, it really is a packet. And even in this digital age, it’s both a slideshow, but it’s a paper packet, because they like to have hands-on, “Let’s make notes,” they will usually come to the table with their own packet that they’ve had their experts prepare on where the district finances were. And so you need to have something available that says, “Okay, that’s where we were two years ago,” because they’re pulling their information right off of the OSPI website. “But here’s where we are now. Here’s our current information. Yes, we were a little under the surrounding districts in terms of our library resources, but you can see right now we’ve made up that gap and then some, and now we’re ahead of the surrounding districts.” But it’s a set of graphs and visuals, and usually it includes two or three pages of fund balance projections.


You know, “This is what we think… if our students were all to return back next year, then we’re looking pretty good. If we only get 10 more students back again next year, and we’re still missing 80 students, we’re going to have a fund balance issue.” And that needs to be a different conversation, then, in terms of what the proposals are and what we can sustain over time.


So it’s a series of comparison graphs with surrounding districts. It’s a comparison over time with our own district. Have we had a huge increase in revenue? Well, no, because our enrollment hasn’t changed. So it’s been a marginal… maybe it’s a 2% increase, just to cover the cost of living increase from the state legislature, in revenue. But what we’re looking at in terms of a proposal is a 10% increase in salary and that doesn’t balance out very well over time.


When I look at bargaining, and of course we bargained for the salaries nobody ever thinks about, okay, but that affects all of your benefits that go with it. Everything you pay into retirement, everything that when you cash out your sick leave that you’re going to be paying more for each day. And when you’re paying for someone to cover a classroom, now that the per diem is higher.


So you have to budget all those numbers. X percent higher. And so of course you have the snowball effect. And so by the time the snowball hits year four, are you still in the black? And if not, this is not a snowball I can agree to, without somebody telling me you don’t have a choice, you’re agreeing to this.


RYAN ESTES: Let’s talk about the negotiations themselves, paint a picture for me of what that looks like for you. When you walk into that room, what’s the process? And how do you bring data into that conversation? And what are you trying to do with that data? Are you trying to use it to inform or to bargain, to educate? Walk me through what that looks like.


KIM KNIGHT: So in my previous district, we went through four rounds of negotiations in four years, two with the teachers, one with the classified and one with the administrators.


And so it’s a little bit different for each group, frankly, the state does not fund much in the way of classified salaries. And they are very aware of that. They’re very well-informed and they know that most of what we spend on classified comes from our local levy dollars. And so the conversation with them really becomes much more collaborative in terms of, “This is the amount of money we are legally allowed to collect. We need to spend X amount on transportation. We need to spend X amount on supplementing our food service. This is kind of where we are, what we’ve got left, and this is what the benefits are costing us.” And it was a very positive back and forth conversation where it became more in terms of, “Okay, what can we look at outside of salary to really entice people to work for our district?”


For teachers, because of the messaging they were hearing directly from the legislature where there was some distrust then that, “The districts are trying to hold out on us a little bit in terms of what funding they have,” it really became much more critical to have those numbers and to have that data in front of you to say, “Yes, we got an extra $1.5 million from the state and salaries, and we lost $1.8 in levy capacity. So if you’re looking for that additional gain, it went somewhere else. It is not in our pockets and you can see on our fund balance, we’re not sitting on it.”


RYAN ESTES: Talk a little bit more about telling the story about the other stakeholders who are involved in this as well, right? Telling the story to your school board, to the community. You might say, “The finances of the district look good, but in the future, that picture could really change.” How do you get out in front of what you see coming down the pike and get that message out in front of everybody who needs to hear it?


KIM KNIGHT: I would say that’s precisely where most districts are finding themselves right now. Because of the supply savings in the pandemic, a lot of districts ended up with an unexpected growth in their fund balance over the last two years. So if you look at it just on the surface, we have more money than we need. We have money coming out of our ears, no problems in sight. If you actually roll out, “Okay, but those savings aren’t continuous. That was a one-time deal. The ESSER funds were a one-time influx of money. Those aren’t continuous. But the cost of living increase, that’s continuous.” What does that really look like? And it actually shows me in a place of deficit in two years. So when you go from a 20% fund balance to a negative in two years, that shows your enrollment issues, that shows that you have to realign your staffing with the enrollment, and it’s important for me to have that out there now, to be having those conversations with the board now, number one, that I do have too much in fund balance right now for that to be sustained at that level.


So, what is plan is your plan to spend it on staffing? Is it your plan to spend it on the interventions? Is it for facilities? But allow the board the opportunity to tell everybody, “Yes, we’re aware. And this is what we have obligated those funds for.”


And we have some very savvy community members. I mean, they want that financial information ASAP and they go looking for it. And so making sure that they can easily find that on our website– don’t bury it, because then that leads to somebody thinking you’re trying to hide something. Put it front and center, be proud of it. It is what it is, and you’ve acknowledged it and you’re making whatever changes necessary, but make sure they can tell with one click, ” Hey, their fund balance went up and hey if I do another click, look, the board is talking about adding three health technicians at every school to help deal with the testing for the pandemic.”


So making sure that that story is well ahead of any negotiations, there shouldn’t be any surprises when you come to sit at the table. They should know where you are. You should be paying attention to what’s happening in the districts around you. So you have a pretty good idea of what the ask is going to be at the table. And so you can start from a place of recognizing, “I know those districts gave 10%. Here’s where we are. Let’s figure out where to go from here.”


RYAN ESTES: When you tell them that, how is that received? You know, being able to present the data and show them, does having something in black and white in front of them make a big difference in terms of how that information is received?


KIM KNIGHT: It does over time.


I was brand new, when I started that first round of negotiations. They didn’t have a lot of reason to trust me. And so it was something that I had to build on over time where they got used to, they could come and ask me a question. I would get that information to them. Everything I do is public record. There’s no chance to hide anything. Over the course of years, they could see that it was a continuous story. There were no sudden changes. There was stability. Then they would trust when they came and said, “Can we do this?” And I would say, “I don’t think it’s legal,” or, “I don’t think it’s sustainable, but how about if we look at it this way?”


And so the collaboration grew over time, but you have to have something to present them with for them to start that trust process. And analytics don’t lie. That’s the one thing I really enjoy about numbers. I may not like what they’re telling me, but they’re not going to lie to me, either I can, or I can’t do something. And so being able to share that information has been crucial.


RYAN ESTES: Obviously, you are not a nameless, faceless business office. You are a human being and you show up in a room and sit down across the table from somebody. And you’re bringing data to make an argument. And I know that negotiations have got to be stressful on all sides, but I’m really curious how having the kind of data that allows you to tell a story, to make a compelling argument, how it helps make those negotiations less acrimonious, how it helps you as a human being.


KIM KNIGHT: I would say the biggest example of that, and again, it takes time to build those relationships within your district, but it’s critical. So in the last negotiations, we were at a place where the district was attempting to bring its food service in-house. We had always contracted out with the food service management company, and they were losing money hand over fist through this model.


But in order to have an in-house, I had to purchase a box truck. Not the things you think about when you’re planning for a budget, “Hey, I have to buy a truck this year.” And so that was quite expensive. So we get into negotiations and the regional union representative actually lunged across the room at me and was yelling that, you know, “How dare you increase capital spending at a time when this funding is all for salaries,” and the lead negotiator for our local bargaining group looked at him and said, “No, that was for food service. She had to buy a truck.”


So just being able to make sure that that. When you’re presenting to the board, “This is what we’ve spent this month. See that line that says capital outlay? This is what’s in that line.” Because they pay attention. They listen. And when you have that rapport, they retain those pieces. And so that it wasn’t just, “Well, I decided that the district office needed new desks, and so we just made it pretty.” No, no, this was still serving the kids. I had buy a truck and that will forever stick in my mind as one of the true beauties of sharing information, making sure that there aren’t any surprises. It may be a surprise to someone from the outside who suddenly sees a giant increase. But they also know and trust when you say, “Well, yeah, that was a one-time truck and it won’t be there next year.” And it wasn’t.


RYAN ESTES: You’re probably not opening up a paper ledger on your desk and sharpening your number two pencil. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you work with data. You know, it’s difficult to do. This is not always an intuitive thing to do. Some people are Excel wizards and can do this, but how do you work with data in a way that is helpful for you?


KIM KNIGHT: I would say I fall firmly in that nerd column where I really do enjoy numbers and I love drilling down to see what they reveal, and my superintendents have all become accustomed to me poking my head in saying, “Did you know…?”


“No.” “Yeah. Is that what we want?” Because that’s the critical follow-up is, is, does it align with your priorities?


So for me, I do have a paper copy of our portion that comes from the state every month. And I print that out and I know it makes my superintendent who is very digital, it makes him cringe. But as long as I don’t carry it everywhere with me, he’s fine. But I sit down with that and I do open up my Forecast5 program and I just start plugging numbers in. And it’s like, “Okay, so it looks like I came in 20 kids over budget,” which has never happened by the way, “but I think I’m going to get an extra $2 million in revenues, so let’s go ahead and plug that in.” And now let’s look at our two scenarios. What I did have this month is being able to say, “Okay, I’ve got five more FTE in my career in tech education program.” So I know that’s going to generate extra revenue, but how much?” And so you sit down and you just plug the numbers in. I have both spreadsheets and Excel, and I have my programs, and I plug them in both places and I compare, and then you email the CTE director and say, “Hey, I think come January, you’re going to get an extra $43,000. So you can start having conversations with your teachers now about where you think you’d like to put that.”


But it is a combination, and the beauty of Forecast5, for me, and not a sales pitch, but for me is that I have really easy reports that I can generate automatically. All I have to do is hit “Save” and they’re there, and I publish them to the website, and people can see them.


And then you can use that data to identify which districts are really seeing a great return for their buck and go talk to them. “What are you doing? What have you got going in your reading program? What are you doing for your bilingual students? Because you are 10% ahead of us when it comes to the test scores.” Dieringer is actually on the upper end of that, we’re the ones that, we have great test scores and we’ve had great test scores… they haven’t been moving. So now the next step is, how do we start moving that needle even further without resting on our laurels?


So then it takes actually more time. There’s no low-hanging fruit. It takes more time to drill down into, “We’ve got this tool that the teachers are using. Are they in fact all using it? Are they really seeing the greatest excitement from their students when they use this? Or is this one where the kids all groan and go, ‘I don’t want to, can we do something else?'” So, where do you draw those lines moving forward? And so for us, it really has become looking at each individual program. And where are we spending the money? Have we seen any improvement in our test scores? If not, then it might be time to shake things up a little bit.


RYAN ESTES: When you look at K-12 as a whole, where do you see the most opportunity for growth in terms of how people understand and use data to make decisions?


KIM KNIGHT: Of course, the big hot topic right now is recovery and learning loss. And so it really is trying to figure out how to identify those students that are at risk. Are they absent more than 10% of the time? Do they have more than one D or F? Are they involved in activities? Because we know there’s a correlation between those students that are involved in their school and their success at school.


And it’s compiling all that data together to have a risk indicator dashboard. And then, “Okay, well, this student two years ago was getting all A’s and B’s, and now the student is getting all C’s and D’s, and it looks like perhaps they’re not turning in their homework.” So this isn’t an issue of them not being capable, but how do we motivate them to actually turn in the work that they’ve done, or re-engage them? Or, you know, there could be something going on completely outside of school. So it involves somebody sitting down and talking to them and saying, “What’s going on?” And so those are the biggest uses right now for data, really making sure that we are focusing on making sure our kids remember how to learn, and remember how to be a student, and give them the best possible chance of re-engaging and being successful going forward.


I would like them to start using it really to drill down beyond the surface. Yes, we have the highest percentage of kids in special education that are meeting standards, compared to other districts. But for those that aren’t meeting standards, what do we need to change to get them there? Understanding that there are always those students that we are required to test that have faced more difficulties than others, right? But for those that maybe have a deficit in math, use that data to drill down. “Okay, so we know that if they have this deficit to overcome, this program works for them. It doesn’t seem to be working over here. So then how do we help move the needle for that next group of kids?”


 Because that dictates for me how I budget. If I know that I need to have $20,000 to put that program in place, then by golly, I’m going to find that $20,000. But if you’re telling me, “I’m not sure I know what I need,” then I’ll probably just budget status quo and leave it where it is. So I need to know what the priorities are for the students, so that I can go fishing and make sure that we have available what we need to say yes.


RYAN ESTES: Kim Knight is the Executive Director of Business Services at Dieringer School District in Washington. Kim, thank you so much for taking time to talk to us today. This was fascinating.


KIM KNIGHT: Thank you very much for having me.


Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software, including powerful analytics tools, powered by Forecast5. For more information about how Frontline’s solutions can help schools with buman capital management, business operations, and student management, visit And, of course, don’t forget to subscribe to Field Trip while you’re at it, for more stories like this one.


For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.