One of the most often asked questions from board members about negotiations is “must the board hire an attorney to negotiate?” While the answer to the question is no, the board is not required to hire an attorney, this does not mean there are not some reasons the board should consider hiring a professional negotiator.

Why should the board hire a professional negotiator? Employee costs are the biggest part of the school district’s budget (upwards of 85 percent) and the contractual language is often the biggest obstacle to implementing sought-after changes to the educational program. Failing to understand the process or take advantage of available professionals may result not only in a bad contract, but in severe financial restraints and a lack of administrative flexibility in achieving the educational goals of the district.

Keep in mind the labor contract is more than just a document. It is the building block for the relationship between the board and its employees, as well as the structure by which most financial decisions are made in the district. Would the district consider building an addition without hiring a professional architect or engineer to ensure a sound structure is built?

Must the negotiator be an attorney? No, there are numerous individuals involved in public school labor negotiations who are not attorneys. Rather, these are individuals who have dedicated their careers to labor relations and have a wealth of experience at the bargaining table. In short, do not discount a possible labor negotiator merely because he or she is not an attorney.

What is the cost? While hiring a professional negotiator will undoubtedly cost the board money, the cost, in relation to the salaries and settlement, may be negligible. The actual cost will vary depending upon each negotiator and the type of fee structure utilized. While some negotiators charge an hourly rate, others utilize an overall fee for all service. Thus, it is hard to predict with certainty, but a good rule of thumb is 0.25 percent of the base year total. (For a district with a $6 million base year salaries, 0.25 percent equals $15,000.)