Tentative school pact reached

Baltimore board, teachers had battled over health insurance

`Cooler heads prevailed'

BlueCross benefits to continue for now

bids to be sought later

November 23, 1999|By Joanna Daemmrich | Joanna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Ending months of brinkmanship, negotiators for the Baltimore school board and teachers union have reached a tentative agreement on a contract that leaves existing health benefits intact.

At issue has been a protracted dispute over the language on health insurance in the two-year contract.

The board wants to seek competitive bids from health insurance plans. Union leaders feared that could result in a loss of teachers' coverage through CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

The city's 7,000 schoolteachers have been working without a contract since talks broke down during the summer. An impartial mediator presented a settlement proposal last month, and both sides agreed. But the board infuriated the union and mediator by immediately turning around and asking for a "clarification" on health benefits.

Union leaders say the agreement leaves the mediator's proposal intact. The schools' chief executive officer, Robert Booker, will recommend to the school board that it approve the contract Nov. 30, said a spokeswoman for school officials.

"We're glad that they're going to sign off on this agreement," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the Baltimore Teachers Union. "We think that certain radicals on the board were trying to force the teachers into having an agreement rather than negotiate one. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed."

The union would ratify the contract shortly after the board vote.

Board members said they, too, believe the sticking points have been worked out. Still, they cautioned that they had not seen the agreement and that it has not been finalized.

"We felt that there was some verbiage that needed further clarification. It is my belief that the clarification has been satisfied," said Edward J. Brody, the board's vice chairman.

Early in negotiations, the board agreed to give the teachers a 4 percent raise, retroactive to July 1, when their contract expired. A 3 percent raise is included in the second year of the contract, which ends in 2001.

The board insisted that the contract contain enough leeway to competitively bid health insurance plans. The compromise crafted by the mediator was to continue BlueCross benefits until later when the board takes bids on health benefits, at which time the union would participate in the review of "comparable" health plans.

Both sides signed off on the mediator's report in September. But they returned to a standoff after the board tried to make changes in the provision on shopping around for health benefits.

At a closed meeting, board members threatened to stop the union's dues collection. The union receives regular dues through an automatic deduction from teachers' paychecks.

The plan never got off the ground, in part because Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke refused to go along. Schmoke was emphatic that he believed stopping union dues' deductions would constitute an unfair labor practice, according to sources who asked not to be identified. He instructed the city's finance chief to ignore any such order, the sources said.

Board members would not comment on the attempt to force the union's hand.

Union leaders were furious and made plans to counter with a radio advertising campaign. The union also considered striking, which is forbidden in Maryland, because the main penalty for doing so would be a loss of its dues.

"We're glad they didn't try to take away the dues deduction. That would have led to a revolt by the teachers," Horwitz said. "It would have been the wrong message to send when it's so important for Baltimore to attract and retain teachers."

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