Baltimore County: back to hostility

July 21, 1994

The Baltimore County public school system had gone several months without experiencing the kind of controversy that made it the darling of local radio talk shows. But just when things were in danger of becoming downright dull on the county school front, the board of education and Superintendent Stuart Berger declared their contract negotiations with the teachers union at an impasse.

In place of a contract for 1994-95 is a "master program" that will take away a teacher's right to grieve work rules through an independent arbitrator. Nor will instructors continue to have any say about which schools they can be transferred to.

The Teachers Association of Baltimore County claims no impasse exists until one has been declared by State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick, who received a TABCO request in early June for such a declaration. School board members counter that because Dr. Grasmick has taken so long to respond (and left the request on her desk while she visited Hawaii) she clearly is unsympathetic to the teachers union.

Legally, then, the board and Dr. Berger appear to be within their rights by implementing the master program -- just as they were last November when they sought to recover the legal fees from their defense of a lawsuit brought by parents and organizations opposed to changes in the system's special education programs.

In both cases, however, the legally correct course was not the wisest one. Like last November's action, this latest maneuver by the board and the superintendent is a public relations disaster, created by folks who, unfortunately, have proved themselves far too prone to commit PR blunders.

The primary cause of the impasse was a disagreement over the size of teacher raises for the coming school year. Yet the master program allows Dr. Berger, no fan of TABCO, to set raises, eliminate independent arbitration of grievances and remove the transfer policy that he devised last year but later found to be unwieldy.

Personally satisfying though this triple play might be to him -- and technically correct -- the superintendent has nonetheless managed to anger the teachers again and give local office-seekers more reason to use him as a whipping boy on the campaign trail this year. The relative peace within the county school system was nice while it lasted. The fact that it was disrupted by another political faux pas by school officials makes the return to the old hostility all the more disappointing.

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