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In Cleveland, School Budget Hold’em Breaks the Ice

How to Use Interactive Games in a Contract Negotiation

In the back of a sports bar in a Cleveland, Ohio, three groups gathered around decks of cards. They were trading different options—one person adding money to the pot, another taking it away. They were discussing strategy, considering big risks for big rewards. There were chicken wings, French fries, and beer. People from different teams were working side by side, exchanging dug-in positions for possibilities.

These were unusual players, with an unusual task: one, the negotiating team from Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the other, representatives from the Cleveland Teachers Union, discussing the school system budget. Their game of choice: ERS’ tool, School Budget Hold’em

For a month prior, the school district and the union had been in contract talks, using an “interest-based” approach which focused on common concerns rather than staked-out positions. Cleveland CFO John Scanlan had used School Budget Hold’em with the School Board, and thought it might work to reinforce the culture of problem-solving with the union. In School Budget Hold’em, teams choose from a set of cards listing savings and investments—such as increasing class size or raising teacher salaries—that a typical school district might consider. The goal is to select a hand that meets the needs of students and teachers while hitting a budget target. In the past two years, more than 6,000 school leaders across the country have played the game as way to stimulate creative conversations about school strategy. So Scanlan and Cleveland Schools CEO Eric Gordon decided to invite the union to an informal, after-work game.

Scanlan says that at first, the invitation understandably met with questions from the union.

“I think people were curious, but they wondered 'Well, it’s your deck of cards, so you know the game—how are we going to win?'" Scanlan recalls. "But the CEO emphasized that School Budget Hold’em is not an us-versus-them exercise—it’s about working together to come up with a solution.” 

That evening, the district and the union mixed up into three teams, each of which tried to balance the budget for a hypothetical District X. A sample district was used instead of the specifics of the Cleveland case in order to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Scanlan believes the game helped participants get a fresh perspective: 

“I think it was interesting for both sides because it became a very non-threatening way to talk about things. When people looked at the cards, we heard ‘Wow, that doesn't save very much, or wow, that costs a lot—how's that going to support the work?’ I think it allowed the union to get a feel for relative scale of things, and an understanding of some of the trades that had to be made. That was part of the CEO's vision—this focus on, let's find a solution rather than, let's trade from where we're at.”

Union President David Quolke agrees that the format of the game—both the exercise and the informal setting—helped both sides see things differently.

“It’s important for us as a union to understand the goals and perspectives that the Board of Ed and the District are coming from. In the actual negotiations, you talk in specifics, and you don’t understand what’s behind how the other team thought about the priorities. I can understand why John [Scanlan] is pretty passionate about some issues at the bargaining table, because he was passionate about them with a beer and wing.”

Both Scanlan and Quolke note that Hold’em didn’t create any magical harmony between the two sides—even within the game there was some disagreement, and some positional bargaining. But Scanlan noticed a certain amount of pride within the teams that created a mutually agreeable set of recommendations, and which seemed to positively influence the teams that struggled. Quolke thinks the game could be used as a great “an ice-breaker” at the beginning of a negotiation process, because it allows people to get to know each other outside of their roles and thus engage in a more productive conversation at the bargaining table.

In May, the Cleveland teachers union approved the contract proposal with 71% support. The proposal includes details to flesh out the legislatively mandated differentiated compensation plan for teachers, a 4% pay increase in exchange for a longer school day, and greater flexibility for school-based leadership. Quolke said the contract shows how teachers “are willing to lead school reform efforts in Cleveland”, and Cleveland School Board Chairwoman Denise Link called the agreement “ground-breaking”. Both sides were pleased that an agreement was reached before the end of the school year.

All of this may have indeed happened without the nighttime card game of School Budget Hold’em. But both teams would recommend the experience to other negotiators—for the chance to break out of the bargaining, encounter new possibilities, build some trust—and eat some chicken wings.

Note: It is important to clarify that no taxpayer dollars were used in the provisioning of beer, wings, or any other expense in this after-work, supplemental activity. And that, of course, School Budget Hold’em involves no actual gambling! 

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