Jonathan Knapp says his election as president of the Seattle teachers union is affirmation of the union's new strategy of relationship-building and seeking compromise. Knapp starts his term this week, just as new Superintendent José Banda arrives.

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Two summers ago, as Seattle teachers negotiated with school officials on a new contract, union leaders realized they had a problem — ongoing criticism of public education had weakened their bargaining position and endangered protections long considered untouchable.

Instead of the usual hard line, the leaders began taking a new tack centered on compromise and relationship-building. During contract talks, they responded to a demand for a stricter teacher-evaluation system by proposing an innovative compromise. And since then, they’ve been building positive relationships and getting involved in local Seattle School Board politics.

“Simply saying ‘no’ is no longer an option,” said Jonathan Knapp, a shop teacher who crafted the approach as union vice president.

“The climate has changed, and we have to be advocates for public education in a way that 20 years ago we didn’t,” Knapp said. “And the way that we do that is building relationships, not by confronting people and saying it’s our way or the highway.”

It’s an approach gaining traction around the state and country, and it’s likely to dominate future union relations in Seattle Public Schools: Knapp just won a contentious election for president of the Seattle Education Association, and he started his term last week — just as control of the district administration shifted to new Superintendent José Banda, who is known for collaboration.

Officials praised the dynamic as an opportunity for Seattle to become a model of district-union relations at a time there is tremendous pressure to improve. But some rank-and-file teachers said they view their leadership’s strategy as a slippery slope toward the elimination of their benefits and, eventually, the privatization of public education.

“We’ve already compromised too much,” said Robert Murphy, a Franklin High math teacher who described Knapp’s approach as too weak. “It’s like you’re compromising with the burglar who is in the burglar’s van with all of your stuff. It’s like, ‘Oh, look, he’s going to give me back my TV.’ What the hell is that?”

Murphy’s anger reflects the passion behind a question dividing teachers unions here and across the country: How best to respond to a well-funded national movement demanding greater accountability and other major changes in public education?

New strategy

For Knapp, 55, the answer lies in a Bosnian War prison camp on the outskirts of Sarajevo.

That’s where he spent 67 days in spring 1995 after being captured while delivering medical supplies as part of a French humanitarian organization called Pharmacists Without Borders.

His team was only released, Knapp says, when a French politician came to the camp and used his decades-old designation as an honorary general in the Yugoslavian army to connect with the Bosnian Serb colonel holding the hostages and persuade him to let them go.

“I understood for the first time how important the personal relationship is,” said Knapp, sitting in the union’s Georgetown offices. “Even if it’s a little bit tense and difficult and you’re really on the other side of an issue, having some personal contact with a person can make the difference.”

That personal connection can lead to compromise, said Knapp, though he noted the importance of continuing to fight for core values.

Compromise was less important a generation ago, Knapp said; in those days, the threat of a teacher strike was often enough for officials to back off attempts to slash benefits or request more accountability. But after years of criticism from groups wanting to overhaul public education, teachers have less power than ever before, he said.

The dynamics between unions and school districts are starting to shift around the country, said Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Silva said many unions have begun signaling an openness to change, driven by pressure from outside groups and individual teachers, as well as financial incentives from the federal government through programs such as Race to the Top, an Obama administration initiative that awards grants to states that pursue changes the president supports.

Mary Lindquist, leader of the Washington state teachers union, agreed that unions are becoming increasingly involved in conversations about how to improve public education. “There’s always an ebb and flow to the times we’re in,” she said.

In Seattle, the softening has been seen most in the new teacher-evaluation system and recent School Board elections.

The evaluation system was Knapp’s idea: While the district wanted student test scores included as a factor in teacher-evaluation ratings and the union did not, he proposed that the scores not be directly included in the ratings but instead be used to trigger closer scrutiny and additional evaluations — a compromise that’s since been hailed as innovative.

Meanwhile, the union invested unprecedented resources in the November School Board election, helping Marty McLaren unseat President Steve Sundquist. McLaren said she thinks she’s made a difference.

Other board members applauded the union for becoming more open this year.

“If we work together, we’re going to get better results than if we’re in a publicly adversarial relationship,” President Michael DeBell said.

Slippery slope

Some teachers disagree.

A group of them mounted a campaign against Knapp and his approach during this spring’s union-president elections.

The campaign centered on criticism of Knapp and departing union President Olga Addae for the new evaluation system and what they considered a lackluster fight against Teach for America, a national organization that installs energetic but inexperienced college graduates as teachers. The union opposes the group, but Knapp and Addae were unable to stop district officials from partnering with it.

Knapp’s opponent, Ballard High School science teacher Eric Muhs, represented the traditional hard-line; during his candidate speech, he called Race to the Top a “concession-forcing, union-busting, unfunded carnival stunt.”

“The only relationships that we’ve built are relationships in which we give away our working conditions,” Muhs said in an interview about Knapp’s approach.

Muhs rejected the idea that changes sought by the advocacy groups are inevitable. “I think authority and money can really be turned back by motivating people,” he said. “You have to be really, really clear and offer a different way forward.”

He received 38 percent of the vote.

New superintendent

Knapp and the new vice president, special-education teacher Phyllis Campano, officially started their two-year terms last week.

The two said they have high hopes for working with new superintendent Banda, who was praised in Anaheim, Calif., for his ability to connect with others.

“He values relationship-building,” Anaheim board member James Vanderbilt said. “That’s almost his hallmark, really.”

Banda, who arrived Monday, said he hopes to bring the same spirit here.

Among the challenges he and Knapp will face: a renegotiation of the teachers contract, which expires next summer.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.