BTU's two-woman team sees success and failure

August 15, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Irene and Lorretta. Lorretta and Irene. In Baltimore school circles, and in a widening circle nationally, there's no need for surnames.

For 15 years, Irene B. Dandridge and Lorretta Johnson have been a two-woman team running the 8,400-member Baltimore Teachers Union. And when the city's largest municipal union speaks, people often listen.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke listened in June when the union demanded school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's resignation. The mayor held an emergency summit meeting and asked the union to suspend hostilities.

John Golle, chairman and chief executive officer of Education Alternatives Inc., the Minneapolis company that runs nine Baltimore schools, is another keen listener. He believes the BTU leaders have played a major role in impeding the expansion of school privatization beyond Baltimore and have become national heroes among teacher unionists trying to keep public schools closed to outside contractors.

Yet the union has had its share of failures -- and harsh critics.

A BTU petition drive to place limits on class size in the City Charter collapsed when the union could not gather 10,000 signatures by Aug. 8, the deadline for sending the matter to referendum in November. Ms. Dandridge and Ms. Johnson attributed the failure to the timing because many teachers are out of town during the summer and were unable to participate in the petition.

Although the teachers won a 4 percent pay raise for 1994-1995, they received no raises in three of the past four years. And a dissident group, Teachers for a New Direction, came within 58 votes of unseating Ms. Dandridge in May's union elections.

"The BTU is toothless," said Peter French, an elementary teacher and a leader of the dissident group. "Irene and Lorretta see themselves as the BTU. All the voices of those other 6,000 teachers are lost, and that's wrong. The potential of the union is virtually unused."

Other teachers say the BTU spends too much time protecting incompetent teachers and too little on activities promoting professionalism.

The BTU leaders reject the criticism. "I tell them to prove it," said Ms. Johnson, 54, who heads the 1,800-member paraprofessional chapter of the union. "If we won't let any teachers go, why did we have 10,000 members in 1979 and 8,500 now? We've reduced ourselves, and we've done it with the union recognizing seniority and the needs of the program."

The BTU, a unit of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, was organized 60 years ago and engaged in strikes in 1967 and 1974. But perhaps the most significant year in BTU history was 1986, when the union won the right to charge nonmembers an "agency fee." The fee, which last year was 74 percent of member teachers' $395 annual dues, is meant to compensate the union for "servicing" the teachers' contract.

That fee, paid by about 1,100 teachers and paraprofessionals, ,, allowed the BTU to reach financial stability after years of operating on meager budgets from cramped quarters downtown and on Liberty Heights Avenue. Three years ago, the BTU bought its office building -- part of which it rents out -- in the Seton Industrial Park in Northwest Baltimore.

That's headquarters for Ms. Johnson and Ms. Dandridge, who compliment and complement each other.

Ms. Johnson, a woman with a perpetual smile, grew up not far from the BTU's spacious offices and has led the paraprofessionals for nearly a quarter-century. Her "aides," mostly women for whom she fights fiercely, are intensely loyal in return.

Ms. Dandridge, 57, a former business teacher who grew up in Harford County, is the leader who speaks for the BTU -- in part because her street-wise partner tends to fracture language. She's beginning her 16th

year heading Baltimore's teachers.

Economically, city teachers have fared well since the BTU became their bargaining agent in 1978. But so have teachers in )) the other Baltimore-area localities, where the rival Maryland State Teachers Association dominates.

The result is that the city-suburban pay gap hasn't narrowed. Baltimore's average teacher salary last year was $36,147, lower than all metropolitan districts but Harford County ($35,273), according to the state Education Department.

An 11-year city teacher with a master's degree earned $19,694 in and $30,075 in 1993-1994. A comparable teacher in Anne Arundel County earned $4,500 more than a city teacher in 1983 -- and $6,800 more last year. [The city encourages senior teachers to stay on the job by offering a one-time "longevity" raise of nearly $8,000 in the 15th year.]

The BTU's co-leaders, by comparison, each earned $77,000 last year and received a 2 1/2 percent raise this school year, Ms. Johnson says.

To Mr. French and other critics, the problem isn't just teacher salaries. Despite Ms. Dandridge's skills at the end of a bullhorn, city teachers are hard to rally.

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