Teachers aim for expansion of bargaining

State union wants say on issues such as class size, curriculum

`Part of the team'

School systems say negotiating table no place to make policy

January 04, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Seeking to build on labor's recent gains in Maryland, the state's largest teachers union is aiming to significantly expand allowable bargaining issues to include such topics as class size, curriculum, classroom assignments and school calendars.

"There is a legitimate role that teachers ought to play in these issues," says Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "We believe in the team effort, that no one can do it themselves, and we think teachers should be part of the team."

Local school systems are scrambling to block the MSTA's efforts to get these changes in the General Assembly session that begins next week, warning that education policy should not be decided at the bargaining table.

"It would not give all of the other interested parties, including parents, students and business groups, the same rights to be part of making decisions," says Linda Nabb, a Dorchester County school board member and chairwoman of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education's legislative committee.

Expanding the scope of collective bargaining is the most prominent of a series of changes that the 54,000- member MSTA hopes to persuade legislators to approve - a campaign backed with radio ads broadcast last month and expected to be repeated soon. The union says it's time for Maryland's collective-bargaining law to be updated because it was passed in 1968 and has not been substantially changed since 1978.

For example, the MSTA envisions that local contracts might include limits on the number of pupils in classes or give unions the right to appoint some members of calendar, curriculum or textbook committees. Teachers might be able to gain more say in their assignments, perhaps even earning the right to refuse to teach subjects for which they are not trained.

"We have teachers who are being involved in many places, but they are there by the individual decision of one person to invite them in," Foerster says. "We want that to be made part of negotiated agreements."

Foerster says the MSTA only wants to allow - not require - local school boards and unions to negotiate this broader range of issues. She says that 27 other states have similar provisions in their laws governing collective bargaining with local school districts.

"Both organizations have to agree to discuss an issue, and the board can always say no," Foerster says. "The board of education has absolute final say."

But opponents say that allowing such issues to be discussed during bargaining will end up making them part of negotiations.

"You end up negotiating whether to negotiate it," says Eric B. Schwartz, deputy executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "There would be a lot of pressure put on local boards to start opening these issues up, and we believe education policy should not be negotiated."

Other changes proposed by the MSTA in a draft bill being circulated include granting collective bargaining rights to janitors, clerks and other support employees in Eastern Shore school systems, as well as to part-time support personnel across Maryland.

The MSTA also seeks to replace the state school board as the arbiter of school employee labor disputes, turning instead to the State Labor Relations Board. That board was created by the governor a little more than a year ago after he decided to grant collective bargaining rights to state employees.

"The state board has been eroding everything," says Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. "If you appeal it to them, it's a loss.

"Let someone impartial make some of these decisions," Beytin says.

But opponents say that the state school board is the proper arbiter of disputes between employees and local school systems and has set out three decades of legal precedents.

"We have spent 30 years finally coming up with interpretations of what is negotiable, what is permissive and what is unlawful," says James J. Lupis, executive director of the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland. "They want to go back through all of it again."

The MSTA drive comes amid a string of victories by the state's public employee unions, who have generally found strong support from Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

In the spring, the governor pushed through a union-backed plan for teacher raises - promising that if local school systems gave 4 percent raises in 2000-2001 and 2001-2002, the state would kick in an extra 1 percent both years.

The governor has indicated he's supportive of this latest initiative, but Glendening does not intend to make it a legislative priority, according to a spokeswoman. The only collective bargaining he intends to introduce as part of his package is to extend rights to support personnel on the state's college campuses.

The chairman of the House committee that typically deals with collective bargaining issues says he has not seen the MSTA proposal, but warns that not having the governor's strong backing might make passage difficult.

"I think that many controversial bills that come before the General Assembly benefit from having strong support from the governor," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.

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