The New Albany-Plain Local school board has taken a new approach to union negotiations by hosting "listening sessions" for residents Jan. 21 and Feb. 10.

The New Albany-Plain Local school board has taken a new approach to union negotiations by hosting "listening sessions" for residents Jan. 21 and Feb. 10.

The two board members who serve as liaisons to the financial review and reporting committee also asked its members for input Feb. 10.

Board President Mark Ryan told the FRRC the board can listen to residents' concerns but cannot "engage in back-and-forth discussion of options, proposals, priorities and goals" or anything else that could be considered bargaining.

The Plain Local Education Association, which represents teachers, and the Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 303, which represents bus drivers, have contracts that expire June 30.

District officials announced earlier this year they were entering into negotiations with the unions. They faced a small backlash from residents in 2011 when they opened negotiations less publicly and announced new contracts when the negotiations were complete.

Superintendent April Domine said the district and the unions also have agreed to use "interest-based bargaining" this year.

According to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services website, interest-based bargaining "may offer parties more flexibility than traditional bargaining, not locking them into predetermined issues and bargaining positions. Instead, the process begins with understanding the problem and identifying the interests that underlie each side's issues and positions."

Domine said the district expected to accept comments from community members through Feb. 17. Initial proposals will be prepared by Feb. 25 and the district is expected to negotiate with PLEA in March and with OAPSE in April.

FRRC member Brian Steel asked what is covered in negotiations.

Ryan said work conditions, salaries and any pay increases are included.

Steel said to retain the best teachers, the district must be willing to offer teachers' salaries within the top 25 percent of the state.

FRRC member Phil Derrow agreed, saying the district needs to be able to recruit the best talent.

However, Derrow said, he continues to question the district's health-care plan, which, he has said, wastes money that could be spent on other things.

Tom Pace, a bus driver, said the attitude in the district is the best it's ever been and thanked Domine for sending employees birthday cards.

At the listening sessions, residents have asked a few questions about negotiations.

One person wanted to know who negotiates for the district. The district's negotiations team includes: Domine; Ryan and school board member Laura Kohler; treasurer Rebecca Jenkins; Jennifer Denny, elementary head of schools and elementary principal; Marilyn Troyer, chief of innovation, improvement and human capital; and Michael Sawyers, chief of operations and strategic development.

All questions and answers from the listening sessions are posted on the district's website,