A domestic battlefield Households: The University of Maryland's proposal to recognize "domestic partnerships" for employees places it in the middle of an emotionally charged debate.

The Education Beat

July 07, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

A PROPOSAL to extend husband-wife benefits to most employees of the University of Maryland System comes before UM's board of regents Friday, and it will be a case of the earnest democratic process confronting the steel-edged reality of politics.

The "domestic partner benefits" measure was recommended by a 5-2 vote this spring by an ad hoc university committee. It held hearings, conducted interactive video sessions with constituents and considered 250 pieces of correspondence. (Many more letters have flowed since the committee's recommendation in April.)

The committee's work was the essence of democracy in action, but it immediately came under attack from two of Maryland's most powerful politicians, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who called the proposal an attack on family and moral values.

Both men said they were speaking "personally," but both have considerable power over UM's budget and other matters at the 11-campus system, which employs some 22,000 people. There's question that the regents have the legal authority to align UM with a number of other schools (Michigan, Wisconsin, many prestigious private colleges) and businesses (Time, Capital Cities/ABC) in extending benefits to domestic partners.

But, as UM Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg pointed out when the College Park campus senate ignited the match two years ago, the issue is as emotionally charged as abortion. Many opponents see the extension of benefits to domestic partners as an endorsement of "living in sin," and the "sin" they're talking about primarily is homosexuality. From their perspective, the wages of sin is fringe benefits.

Using Census Bureau figures, the university committee estimated that some 690 full-time and 222 part-time employees have live-in partners, the vast majority of them heterosexuals. The committee estimated that even a "worst-case" scenario -- if every eligible employee filed for benefits -- would cost the university very little. Extending tuition remission benefits to the children of domestic partners, for example, would cost a maximum of $170,000.

But for most of the proponents, the issue is a matter of simple fairness. "My personal view is that the time has come for us to be a little more fair and open," Calvin W. Burnett, president of Coppin State College in Baltimore, said last week.

Some opponents use legal arguments. For example, Robert Smoes, a biology professor at Towson State University, noted in e-mail to the university senate that domestic partnerships are "undefined and unknown" entities.

Married couples sign a contract and have "legally enforced responsibilities," Smoes wrote. Domestic partners do not. And what of the potential for abuse? What about roommates; are they covered? Could domestic partner benefits "simply be reduced to 'me and any person of my choice' with no compelling good to the state?"

But people sign their tax returns, proponents argue, and the majority are honest. A simple affidavit has proved effective in most of the 500 cases where benefits have been extended to unmarried couples by public and private employers across the nation.

Whatever action the regents take Friday, no doubt they'll be criticized. If they reject the proposal, they'll be accused of retreating under political pressure, although a university official said last week that the political threat might just steel the regents to demonstrate independence. If they approve the proposal, the chorus from the anti-gay crowd will be deafening.

And delaying the decision simply puts off the inevitable and sends a message to those who tried to reach consensus the way a university ought to.

Judges plan joint hearing on Baltimore school suits

The federal judge presiding over the the 12-year-old special education suit in Baltimore and the state judge handling the more recent Baltimore school finance suit reportedly are planning a joint hearing in November on issues related to both cases.

Such a forum combining federal and state jurisdictions in a single courtroom is unprecedented in American school law.

Private management makes its last stand

Education Alternatives Inc.'s departure from Hartford, Conn., left Minneapolis as the only public school system in the nation managed by a private company.

That company, Public Strategies Group, and its chief executive, Peter Hutchinson, who is also the Minneapolis superintendent, recently got a C grade from the Minneapolis Board of Education for second-quarter performance.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota State Board of Education extended Hutchinson's contract another three years on a 5-3 vote. The three detractors cited low test scores.

The Minneapolis experience should be of interest to Maryland officials trying to forge a state-city "partnership" to operate Baltimore schools.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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