Union must recognize school system's needs

Impasse: Teachers' beef is about control, not education and best interests of Baltimore children.

August 26, 1999

BALTIMORE teachers leap at every chance to say they favor reform and have students' best interests at heart. Well, they can back up those claims now by backing off their current stare-down with school officials over a new contract.

The issues that have snagged negotiations since June have nothing to do with student, instructional or classroom interests.

They're about control. And in the context of the money school officials have heaped upon city teachers in the past few years -- including $21 million last year and another across-the-board 4-percent raise approved Tuesday night -- a squabble over who runs the system makes teachers look especially petty, perhaps even greedy.

School officials are hardly asking for the moon in these negotiations. They simply want to be able to bid their contract competitively with Care First, which provides health care to the city's 7,000 teachers and aides. They also want to hold badly needed professional development sessions before or after school, rather than during class time or lunch hours.

The school board has guaranteed that if it signs with another, less expensive health-care provider, services will not change. And school officials say the professional development sessions would total 45 minutes a week -- less time than most folks spend daydreaming.

Instead of allowing the system to bid competitively for a health-care provider, the union wants a three-year study of health care costs to determine if money can be saved.

On a more reasonable note, union officials say they're willing to negotiate a raise in their prescription co-pay. Instead of agreeing to the system's professional development schedule, the union wants the contract to mandate some teacher say in how and when professional development is done.

The union isn't flat-out wrong about either issue, but this whole debate is ridiculous.

These are basic business decisions that leaders in any institution ought to be able to make. More important, they are precisely the kinds of decisions state legislators envisioned the school board making when they approved the city school reform law in 1995.

In cities where major school reform works, labor peace generally plays a big role. That's because school boards in those cities have acknowledged the need for better teacher pay, and because teacher unions have backed off silly threats and turf battles.

An arbitrator will make a nonbinding recommendation on a compromise by Sept. 3. Teachers have not commented on whether they will take a job action when schools open Monday. We hope they don't, and hope further that they put this nonsense aside to get on with the business of teaching. The city's schoolchildren -- already shortchanged and behind their peers -- deserve that much.

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