Dandridge hopes for unlikely job Baltimore schools: The head of the teachers union has been nominated to the school board, but the City Charter and state law stand in the way.

The Education Beat

March 17, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THERE ARE about 15,000 school boards in the United States, and no one knows of a case where a board member is also head of the local teachers union.

Irene B. Dandridge wants to be the first.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who appoints the nine-member Board of School Commissioners with City Council consent, has nominated Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, despite a City Charter stipulation that board members live in the city she lives in Columbia and despite a state statute that prohibits people from serving on boards that have authority over their jobs.

Mr. Schmoke wants to "change the culture in our public schools," to "get over this mentality that it's us against them."

Ms. Dandridge, 60, says very much the same thing about serving on the board. She says she checked out the prospect with Albert Shanker, the powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers, and with members of her own local. "They thought it would be a good idea," she says.

"Maybe nobody ever considered it because teacher unions are generally looked on as having adversarial relations with school boards. The union really wants to make changes and help in reform. I'm willing to join in the effort."

But Michael Resnick, senior associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, says there are good reasons why union leaders aren't on school boards.

"As a matter of principle, it's wrongheaded," he says. "The concept of a local school board is to represent the public, not the unions, in the governing of schools. Part of that also has to do with dealing with staff. The board role becomes compromised when the head of the union sits on the board.

"If you're going to carry this to its logical extreme, why not appoint a union head to the City Council, to Congress and to state legislatures? When you do this, who's the employer, who's the employee, and whom does the board represent?"

Arnita Hicks McArthur, vice president of the Baltimore board, is its only teacher, though Ms. McArthur teaches at the college level. She was the only commissioner to oppose a plan to toughen the evaluation of city teachers. "Teachers are the heart of the system," she says, "and they need more of a voice in the formulation of policy. Irene might bring more of that voice."

Ms. Dandridge, a Harford County native who began her career in Baltimore as a business teacher at Forest Park and Northwestern high schools, says she would not vote on BTU contractual or personnel matters. But she says she would not have hesitated to vote against the city's contract with Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI) four years ago or to oppose, with Ms. McArthur, the new teacher evaluation plan.

Peter French, an elementary teacher and dissident BTU member, says the union's internal discussion about a possible board seat for Ms. Dandridge was not as one-sided as portrayed by the BTU president.

Ms. Dandridge, he says, may be positioning herself for BTU officer elections later this spring. "I detect that she isn't representing me as vigorously as she ought to be because she wants this appointment so badly," Mr. French says. "Where was the union when the mayor started talking about vouchers?"

"I'm opposed to choice and have told the mayor I'm opposed to choice," says Ms. Dandridge, adding that she is preparing a "white paper" on Mr. Schmoke's proposal to give city students and their parents more choice in the selection of schools.

Ironically, the would-be school board member has been widely criticized for being out of touch with the classroom. She and Loretta Johnson, president of the paraprofessional chapter of the BTU, have led the 8,400-member BTU, the city's largest municipal union, for nearly 17 years. Neither has spent a good deal of time in the classroom.

Ms. Dandridge has lived with her husband in Howard County for 20 years. Ms. Dandridge and Ms. Johnson, who lives in Baltimore County, earn about $80,000 each and commute to the union's headquarters in Northwest Baltimore. Both have become nationally known for their adamant opposition to school privatization.

John Golle, founder and chief executive officer of EAI, blames the BTU leaders for the troubles his company has had gaining a foothold in American education.

Ms. Dandridge is a fiery speaker and frequent guest on radio and television talk shows, but Mr. French and others say the BTU is "toothless" under her leadership.

Ms. Dandridge's daughter attended public schools in Howard County, and one of her two grandchildren is in a private school, "much to my chagrin," she says.

Having her as a board member would surely be interesting. For example, the BTU demanded Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's resignation in 1994, after layoff notices arrived in teachers' mailboxes in what became known as the "Memorial Day massacre."

As a board member, would Ms. Dandridge lobby fellow commissioners to fire Dr. Amprey? Since the superintendent clearly isn't a teacher, could Ms. Dandridge vote for his dismissal?

"It may be a moot point, anyway, if my Howard County residency prevents me from serving," says Ms. Dandridge, still recovering from severe facial lacerations received when an air bag inflated in a January car accident.

Ms. Dandridge may be right. In 1971, a new board member, Cyril O. Byron, moved his family to Baltimore County. George L. Russell Jr., the city solicitor, ruled that Mr. Byron was no longer eligible to serve on the board, and Mr. Byron resigned.

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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