Carroll school employee unions are preparing for what are expected to be the most difficult contract negotiations in years, after the school board cut pay raises from next year's budget and then tried unsuccessfully to change the rules of bargaining.
The school board's decision to back out of tentative contract agreements with the system's 2,800 employees, followed by the board's attempt to move contract renegotiations into open meetings, set an ugly stage from which contract talks must resume, union leaders said.
"I can't even imagine how the employees feel at this point," said Sharon Fischer, who represents about 500 secretaries, clerks, nurses and instructional assistants as president of the Carroll Association of School Employees. "We bargained in good faith, and the board was aware along the way of what we were bargaining. They had to know how it was going and they had to have a feel of what the county was going to do [with its budget]. I'm just very disappointed because we bargained in good faith."
Cindy Wheeler, president of the Carroll County Education Association, the local teachers union, said the board's tone Wednesday did more harm than its actions.
"I was more disappointed in the board's attitude [Wednesday] night than in their vote," she said. "It was just very `us against them' and we've worked very hard to establish a collaborative, cooperative working relationship with them. They just destroyed it with their remarks."
To bring the school system's spending plan in line with county budget allocations, school board members voted to eliminate all but about $2.7 million of the $6.6 million that had been set aside for salary increases rather than cut funding for new staff and programs that members said were needed to keep up in the fast-growing district.
Then, as Wednesday night's board meeting was coming to an end, member C. Scott Stone suggested that as long as school officials and union leaders were going back to the bargaining table , the negotiating might as well be done in public rather than behind closed doors, as it has been since 1997.
Board members Susan Holt and Gary W. Bauer and board President Susan W. Krebs all initially agreed. Board member Thomas G. Hiltz left after the board's afternoon budget work session and was not present for the discussion about public negotiations. His colleagues said he was leaving for vacation. He could not be reached for comment.
Stone's suggestion prompted fiery protests from union leaders who countered that it would mean a return to the days of posturing and positional and confrontational bargaining.
Wheeler, of the teachers union, warned that resuming public bargaining would be "taking a giant step backward."
"It won't be honest. It won't be open," she told the board. "It would be a big mistake."
Fischer also cautioned that forcing contract talks that have become more like problem-solving sessions into the public would poison the tenor of the discussions.
Hal Fox, who represents the teachers union and CASE, said that the board was waging "an ambush" and "trying to subvert public input."
"There's a reason in these United States that in any kind of industry or business you can think of that does collective bargaining, [it] is done behind closed doors," he told the board.
Slowly, board support for Stone's proposal crumbled.
Holt, who had complained of inaccurate information being spread by a teachers union official, said she would support public bargaining in the future but not to renegotiate the current contracts.
"Maybe it's best this time to keep it closed," she said. "Just do it quick and settle it."
Bauer also changed his mind, explaining in an interview that it wasn't worth the hassles this year.
Without Hiltz present to break the tie, the vote failed, 2-2.
School board members and Stephen Guthrie, the system's human resources director and one of its chief negotiators, said the unions should not have been surprised at the suggestion to open negotiations to the public. The board has mentioned the idea in at least three public meetings in recent months, particularly with regard to the prospect of having to bargain on issues like the school calendar.
Guthrie also said the unions knew there was a strong possibility that the county commissioners would not give the school system enough money to fund the tentative contract agreements, which were ratified by members of the teachers union, CASE, the food services workers union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) but not signed by the school board.
Negotiators for the district's administrative and supervisory bargaining unit never reached an agreement with the school system, and members of the food services union are not affected by Wednesday night's budget cuts because their contracts do not depend on county funding. Those employees -- the lowest paid among the system's bargaining units -- will receive the 3-percent raises they negotiated for each of the next two years, Guthrie said.
Wheeler agreed that both sides knew the county commissioners likely would not fund the school board's entire budget request.
"They never, never do," she said. "But I truly think the board could have funded the negotiated agreement, but they chose not to and it was a matter of choice. But never in my memory has the board not funded a negotiated agreement after it was ratified by the members."