Senate passes bill to expand teacher bargaining power

Measure meant to give more say in classroom assignments, curricula

March 26, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland's teachers unions won a big victory last night in their quest for expanded power in collective bargaining, securing Senate passage of a measure designed to give them more say in such areas as classroom assignments and curriculum.

The bill - pushed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening as part of his legislative package - now goes to the House of Delegates, where it is expected to pass easily. Last year, the House overwhelmingly supported a broader version of the legislation, only to see it die in a Senate committee without coming to a vote.

"We're extremely gratified this bill has passed, and we believe it demonstrates that legislators are ready to support an enlightened process that allows us to discuss substantive issues," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. "We're willing to work with school boards to help them tackle the issues facing our students."

The bill - approved by the Senate, 42-4 - represents a final legislative gift to unions from Glendening. During his two terms, the governor has pushed a series of pro-labor laws through the General Assembly, most recently granting Maryland's state university employees the right to negotiate over wages, benefits and working conditions.

Under the teachers measure, the issues over which unions are permitted to bargain would greatly expand to include such topics as transfers, curriculum selection, security and teacher evaluations.

Maximum class size and school calendars - two topics that were open to negotiation under the original bill - are prohibited under an amendment added by the Senate. But unions would be allowed to negotiate such topics as teacher staffing levels, in part to ensure that classes with large numbers of pupils would be required to have additional teachers.

"We believe we ought to be able to bargain around the peripheral issues related to class size, particularly as they relate to students' ability to learn," said Foerster, whose union represents 55,000 members.

MSTA officials have said that under the bill, local contracts might give unions the right to appoint some members of curriculum and textbook-selection committees.

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

Local school boards and superintendents have vigorously opposed the measure, saying that educational decisions ought not to be decided at the bargaining table.

"This bill basically sets everything on the table and that is, in simple terms, a huge distraction to a school board that ought to be the educational leader responding to local priorities," said John R. Wollums of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

Union officials say the legislation permits school boards to refuse to negotiate any subjects they want, and refusal to negotiate those topics cannot be used to declare a bargaining impasse. Teachers unions in Maryland are not permitted to strike.

In addition to the expansion of permissible topics for negotiation, the bill approved yesterday would extend collective bargaining rights to support personnel on the Eastern Shore, including secretaries, clerks, classroom aides and janitors.

Similar workers elsewhere in the state already have those rights.

But the Senate rejected a proposal to extend collective bargaining to part-time support personnel statewide.

House leaders have said they would wait for the Senate to approve a bill before taking it up for consideration.

The Senate has generally been less friendly to labor legislation than the House, making Senate approval the crucial step for most such bills.

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