Teachers may get voice on board Schmoke proposes seating union chief to reduce tensions

March 14, 1996|By Michael James and Jean Thompson | Michael James and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Vowing to "change the culture in our public schools," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he will take the unusual step of nominating the president of the city teachers union to the school board.

The mayor, who has spoken candidly in recent weeks of his hopes to reform the troubled school system, said he is recommending Irene B. Dandridge in the hope of curtailing tensions between the union and the school board. The appointment of a union president to a school board may be a first, educational experts say.

"One of the things we need to change is the mentality where teachers simply view the school board as a kind of hostile relationship," Mr. Schmoke said. "There's such a need for us to get over this view, this mentality, that it's us against them. There just ought to be a more collaborative sense and I think we can do that by having a union member on the board."

Four school board members currently serve even though their four-year terms have expired, giving the mayor a chance to make changes on the nine-member board.

Ms. Dandridge, a resident of Howard County, would be a voting member of the board but would not be allowed to vote on salary and benefits, to avoid a conflict with her union interests.

The mayor said he came up with the idea several months ago and got a favorable response from current school board members. He compared the nomination to General Motors Corp.'s decision to allow a United Auto Workers member on the corporate board of directors. (In fact, GM has no union member on its board, a spokeswoman said last night; Chrysler Corp. appointed a UAW leader to its board many years ago.)

"It's no more radical than that idea was," he said. "I told the board members, why don't we consider putting a teacher, a representative of the union, on the board so that teachers in the future won't have this sense that a policy was developed and imposed on them, but instead have an opportunity to help create those policies at the earliest possible stage?"

The mayor called the idea "a different way of thinking about the school system" and said something needed to be done to improve the strained relations between teachers and the board.

Ms. Dandridge said she spoke about the mayor's plans at a recent Baltimore Teachers Union membership meeting. The reaction was good, she said.

"We thought it would be a good opportunity for the board to get views on issues from the inside out, from the school level," Ms. Dandridge said. "Most seem to feel the primary advantage would be that the school board would be able to see various sides of issues that they don't see now."

Asked about the potential conflict of interest, she said she doesn't see any as long as she is not involved in decisions affecting salaries and benefits.

Educational leaders were surprised to hear about the idea and called it an interesting experiment.

"It's a heck of a better idea than vouchers and selling off schools is," said Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. He said that while there always is the risk of teachers becoming co-opted by the board they serve on, the possible gains outweigh the risks.

"Teachers have to be empow- ered to make decisions. This is the kind of step that could well be a valuable one," Mr. Pence said. "On the other hand, if she's on there to be the fall guy and is being set up, that's a problem."

Mr. Pence cautioned that a potential pitfall of serving on the board is that board members can later tell union members that "your representative was on the board when we voted" on an issue they may not approve of.

He said he has occasionally heard of teachers serving on school boards, but not boards that oversee their jobs. For instance, a teacher in Allegany County recently opted to run for a Garrett County school board seat, he said.

Kathy Christie of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States said she'd never heard of a union president serving on a board anywhere in the country.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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