Bill pleases teacher unions

Glendening seeks measure to expand collective bargaining

Opposition gathering

January 05, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will seek legislation this year to expand the power of teachers unions in collective bargaining, including giving them more say in such issues as classroom assignments and possibly even curriculum.

As part of his 2002 General Assembly package, Glendening will include a bill from the Maryland State Teachers Association to make significant changes in collective bargaining - a proposal that will be fiercely fought by local school boards and superintendents.

If the Assembly passes the bill, it would represent a final legislative gift to unions from Glendening. The governor has pushed a series of pro-labor laws through the legislature, most recently granting Maryland's state university employees the right to negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions.

Though the teachers union bill will face stiff opposition from state and local education officials, it stands a reasonable chance of success because of its inclusion in the governor's legislative package. The House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a similar measure last year without support from the governor, but it died in the Senate without a vote.

The most controversial change sought by the teachers union would greatly expand allowable bargaining issues, possibly to include such topics as class size, curriculum, classroom assignments, school calendars and security.

Union leaders say expanding the scope of what unions and school boards are allowed to negotiate would let teachers be more actively involved in finding ways to improve teaching and learning.

"We believe it's time to remove the gag rule from collective bargaining," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the 55,000-member MSTA. "We want to be full partners, and we believe we can be a powerful resource in the process of education reform and improving student achievement."

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-selection committees. Teachers might also be able to gain more say in assignments, perhaps even the right to refuse to teach subjects for which they are not trained.

"I think it will be a way to open up more dialogue about conditions in the school system and attempting to make the school system a better place to teach and a better place to learn," said Mark Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.

But local school boards and superintendents say educational decisions should not be decided at the bargaining table.

"These types of concessions end up snowballing and build impediments to getting the job done," said John R. Wollums of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "It's going to be an `everything on the table' environment that would be radically different."

Union officials say the MSTA proposal would only allow - not require - local school boards and unions to negotiate the broader range of issues, and that many other states have similar provisions in their collective bargaining laws.

But education officials say that once such issues are allowed to be discussed during bargaining, they'll end up being part of negotiations. They also point to a legal opinion last summer from the state education department's chief counsel finding that negotiations on some of those issues already is allowed.

Maryland's collective bargaining law for teachers was first passed in 1968 and has not been substantially updated since 1978.

Other changes proposed by the MSTA 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 overturn a 1992 state school board decision which found that support personnel who are being fired do not have the same due process rights as teachers, and it wants the State Labor Relations Board to replace the state school board as the arbiter of school employee labor disputes.

Local school boards say they oppose such changes. "The state board should remain the sole authority for these decisions because they've had this balancing test of the interests of the students versus the interests of the employees," said Sandra H. French, chairwoman of the Howard County school board.

A spokesman for Glendening said yesterday the bill is still being drafted and it's not clear whether the governor will include everything the MSTA is seeking.

"The main focus will be the support employees on the Eastern Shore because the governor is concerned about a fair and equal application of the laws," said spokesman Michael Morrill. "He has always believed that fairness takes priority, and it's unfair that employees on the Eastern Shore don't have the same rights as employees in similar jobs almost anywhere else in the state."

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